Bashar Assad

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ROME — The United States and some European allies are edging closer to direct involvement in Syria’s civil war with plans to deliver meals, medical kits and other forms of nonlethal assistance to the rebels battling President Bashar Assad.

The U.S., Britain, France and Italy aren’t planning to supply the Free Syrian Army with weapons or ammunition. But moves are afoot to significantly boost the size and scope of their aid to the political and military opposition. Such decisions could be announced as early as Thursday at an international conference on Syria in Rome.

Britain and France are keen to give the rebels the means to protect themselves from attacks by Assad’s forces, officials say.

For now, the Obama administration is advancing more modestly. It is nearing a decision whether to give ready-made meals and medical supplies to the opposition fighters, who have not received direct
U.S. assistance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce the new contributions at the Rome conference, in addition to tens of millions of dollars intended for rule of law and governance programs.

The shifts in strategy are part of a step-by-step process that could lead to direct military aid to carefully screened members of the Free Syrian Army if the nearly two-year conflict continues.

Kerry said Wednesday in Paris that both the U.S. and Europe want a negotiated solution to the crisis and would speak to the leaders of the Syrian National Coalition about that. 

“We want their advice on how we can accelerate the prospects of a political solution because that is what we believe is the best path to peace, the best way to protect the interests of the Syrian people, the best way to end the killing and the violence,” he said.

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover as another fires his weapon during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, Sunday. The revolt against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Russia said Monday it is sending two planes to Lebanon to start evacuating its citizens from Syria, the strongest sign yet that President Bashar Assad’s most important international ally has serious doubts about his ability to cling to power.

The Russian announcement came as anti-government activists reported violence around the country, including air raids on the town of Beit Sahm near Damascus International Airport, just south of the capital.

Russian officials said about 100 of the tens of thousands of Russian nationals in the country will be taken out overland to Lebanon and flown home from there, presumably because renewed fighting near the airport in Damascus has made it too dangerous for the foreigners to use that route out of the Syrian capital.

Assad has dismissed calls that he step down. He has proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution, but the opposition insists he play no role in a resolution to the conflict. The U.N. says more than 60,000 people have died in the civil war since March 2011.

Russia has been Assad’s main ally since the conflict began, using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions.

Russia recently started to distance itself from the Syrian ruler, signaling that it is resigned to him losing power. Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that he understands Syria needs change and that he was not protecting Assad.

Russian officials say the evacuation of thousands of its citizens from Syria — many of them Russian women married to Syrians — could be by both air and sea.

A squadron of Russian Navy ships currently is in the Mediterranean for a planned exercise near Syrian shores later this month. Military officials earlier said that the exercise will simulate marines landing and taking people on board from the shore.

Earlier this month, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, said that Russia seemed as determined as the United States to end Syria’s civil war, but that he didn’t expect a political solution to emerge anytime soon.

The Arab League chief said Monday that Brahimi’s mission had not yielded even a “flicker of hope.”

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nabil Elaraby proposed that the heads of state gathered there at an economic summit call for an immediate meeting of the U.N. Security Council. He suggested the security council adopt a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Syria and establish a monitoring force to ensure compliance.

Syria’s defense minister said Monday that the army would keep chasing rebels all over the country “until it achieves victory and thwarts the conspiracy that Syria is being subjected to.”

Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij’s comments came as activists reported air raids and shelling around the nation.

Monday’s fighting included a helicopter raid in the northeastern town of Tabqa that killed eight people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory also reported a car bombing in the Damascus neighborhood of Dummar and said another car bomb exploded late Monday in central Syria, killing at least 30 pro-government gunmen in Salamiyeh.

In this Monday photo, a Syrian man runs for cover during heavy fighting betwen Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria’s civil war is closing in on President Bashar Assad’s seat of power in Damascus with clashes between government forces and rebels flaring around the city Tuesday, raising fears the capital will become the next major battlefield in the 20-month-old conflict.

Numerous reports emerged of at least a dozen people killed near the ancient city and elsewhere, and the regime said nine students and a teacher died from rebel mortar fire on a school. The state news agency originally said 30 people had been killed in the attack.

While many of the mostly poor, Sunni Muslim suburbs ringing Damascus have long been opposition hotbeds, fighting has intensified in the area in recent weeks as rebels press a battle they hope will finish Assad’s regime.

“The push to take Damascus is a real one, and intense pressure to take control of the city is part of a major strategic shift by rebel commanders,” said Mustafa Alani of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “They have realized that without bringing the fight to Damascus, the regime will not collapse.”

The increased pressure has raised worries that he or his forces will resort to desperate measures, perhaps striking neighbors Turkey or Israel, or using chemical weapons.

NATO foreign ministers approved Turkey’s request for Patriot anti-missile systems to be deployed along its southern border to defend against possible strikes from Syria.

“We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after the meeting in Brussels. “To anyone who would want to attack Turkey, we say, ‘Don’t even think about it!’”

Before the meeting, Fogh Rasmussen said he expected any use of chemical weapons to get an “immediate reaction from the international community.”

On Monday, President Barack Obama said there would be consequences if Assad made the “tragic mistake” of deploying chemical weapons, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed with the U.S. position.

“We are of the same opinion, that these weapons should not be used and must not reach terror groups,” Netanyahu said.

U.S. intelligence has seen signs that Syria is moving materials inside chemical weapons facilities recently, though it is unsure what the movement means. Still, U.S. officials said the White House and its allies are weighing military options should they decide to secure Syria’s chemical and biological weapons.

In July, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference that Syria would only use chemical or biological weapons in case of foreign attack, not against its own people. The ministry then tried to blur the issue, saying it had never acknowledged having such weapons.

Printed on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 as: Syrian fighting approaches Damascus

BEIRUT — Internet service went down Thursday across Syria and international flights were canceled at the Damascus airport when a road near the facility was closed by heavy fighting in the country’s civil war.

Activists said President Bashar Assad’s regime pulled the plug on the Internet, perhaps in preparation for a major offensive. Cellphone service also went out in Damascus and parts of central Syria, they said. The government blamed rebel fighters for the outages.

With pressure building against the regime on several fronts and government forces on their heels in the battle for the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels have recently begun pushing back into Damascus after largely being driven out of the capital following a July offensive. One Damascus resident reported seeing rebel forces near a suburb of the city previously deemed to be safe from fighting.

The Internet outage, confirmed by two U.S.-based companies that monitor online connectivity, is unprecedented in Syria’s 20-month-old uprising against Assad, which activists say has killed more than 40,000 people.

Regime forces suffered a string of tactical defeats in recent weeks, losing air bases and other strategic facilities. The government may be trying to blunt additional rebel offensives by
hampering communications.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned what she called the regime’s “assault” on Syrians’ ability to communicate with each other and express themselves. She said the move spoke to a desperate attempt by Assad to cling to power.

Syrian authorities often cut phone and Internet service in select areas to disrupt rebel communications when regime forces are conducting major operations.

The government sent mixed signals about the Internet outage but denied it was nationwide. The pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya quoted Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as saying that “terrorists” have targeted Internet cables, interrupting service in several cities.

Separately, state-run TV said the outage was due to a technical failure that affected some provinces, adding that technicians were trying to fix it.

Activists in Syria, reached by satellite telephones unaffected by the outage, confirmed the communications problems.

A young Syrian businessman who lives in an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, which some refer to as part of “the green zone” because it has remained relatively safe, sent a text message to an Associated Press reporter Thursday that said the Internet had been cut in his area and that mobile phone service was cutting out.

The opposition said the Internet blackout was an ominous sign that the regime was preparing a major offensive.

DOHA, Qatar — Syrian anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday under intense international pressure to form a new opposition leadership that will include representatives from the country’s disparate factions fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime, activists said.

The opposition has been deeply divided for months despite the relentless bloodshed in Syria and repeated calls from their Western and Arab supporters to create a cohesive and representative leadership that could present a single conduit for foreign aid. The agreement, reached Sunday after more than a week of meetings in the Qatari capital of Doha, could boost efforts to secure international support that will be crucial in the war to oust Assad.

A Syrian boy, who fled his home with his family in Aleppo, due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, shows empty shells he collected, as he and his family take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — In a striking admission, President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that his armed forces will need time to defeat the rebels and addressed the string of defections from his authoritarian regime.

The comments amounted to an acknowledgment that even though the opposition lacks the government’s tanks and airplanes, their tenacity and tactical creativity — combined with the military’s struggle to fight on multiple fronts — have yielded a stalemate that could prolong the civil war with many more dead.

Over the past few months, Syria’s military has increasingly been stretched thin fighting on multiple fronts against rebels seeking to oust Assad. His forces have been unable to quell the rebellion as it spread to the capital, Damascus, with significant clashes that began in July and to Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, a few weeks later. At the same time, the military is fighting smaller scale battles in a string of other cities and towns around the country.

With neither side making significant advances, the conflict is looking more like a war of attrition that could be very drawn out.

“We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it,” Assad said in an interview with the pro-regime private TV station Dunya. “We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time,” he told the station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria’s wealthiest men.

“If the armed forces wanted to use the entire range of its firepower, it can wipe out many areas. But this will be unacceptable,” Assad said.

From amateur video released by Ugarit on Thursday purports to show Syrian security forces at Aleppo University. Syrian security forces stormed dormitories to break up anti-government protests.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syrian forces stormed student dormitories during an anti-government protest at Aleppo University Thursday, firing tear gas and bullets in an hours-long siege that killed at least four students and forced the closure of the state-run school, activists said.U.N. truce observers toured other restive parts of the country, and residents told them of being too terrified to walk on the streets after dark as the 14-month-old uprising rages on. The U.N. estimates 9,000 people have been killed since the revolt began, and a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan nearly a month ago has done little to stem the bloodshed.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney admitted the plan might be doomed.

“If the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat,” he said, adding that new measures might have to be taken, including a return to the U.N. Security Council. He gave no further details.

It was not clear how long the university would remain closed following the siege, which began late Wednesday when around 1,500 students held a protest against President Bashar Assad’s regime. Pro-regime students attacked the crowd with knives before security forces swept in, firing tear gas and then live ammunition, activists said.

“Some students ran to their rooms to take cover, but they were followed to their rooms, beaten up and arrested,” student activist Thaer al-Ahmed said. “Others suffered cuts and broken bones as they tried to flee.”

Raids and intermittent gunfire continued for about five hours through early Thursday, he said, adding that dozens of people were wounded, some critically, and 200 students were arrested.

The student quarters — known as the University City — comprise 20 dormitories that house more than 5,000 students next to the university campus. Students there often shout anti-Assad slogans from their rooms at night.

It was an unusually violent incident in Aleppo, a major economic hub that has remained largely loyal to Assad and has been spared the kind of daily bloodshed that has plagued other Syrian cities over the course of the uprising.

There has been a string of bombings near government security buildings in Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, adding a mysterious element to the anti-government revolt. U.S. officials suggested al-Qaida militants may be joining the fray.

For the most part, Aleppo has been quiet, but university students — many from rebellious areas such as the northern Idlib province — have been staging almost daily protests calling for the fall of Assad.

Al-Ahmed, a law student, said the Aleppo campus and dormitories have been raided before, but Thursday was the most violent incident.

Amateur videos showed a large number of security forces apparently storming the dorms Wednesday night. Another showed a student protest earlier the same day with shouts of: “We don’t want you, Bashar!” One showed the campus with windows shattered and a man dousing a smoldering fire with a bucket of water.The authenticity of the videos could not be confirmed.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said five students were killed and some 200 arrested in the raids, while the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at four. The Syrian government has prevented independent reporting in the country, making it impossible to independently verify casualty figures.

“Regime forces demanded through loudspeakers that the dorms be evacuated, then began detaining the students,” the LCC said in a statement.

Al-Ahmed and the Observatory’s director Rami Abdul-Rahman said pro-regime students armed with knives tried to break up the protest before the security forces raided the dorms.
Syria’s persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a U.N. team of observers to salvage the truce that was brokered by Annan but which started to unravel almost as soon as it was supposed to begin on April 12.

The two sides have blamed each other for thwarting the truce, with Assad’s forces trying to repress demonstrators calling for him to step down. The regime also is facing an armed rebellion that has sprung up as peaceful protests have proved ineffective against his forces.

The head of the U.N. observers, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, visited the central cities of Homs and Hama, where anti-regime sentiment runs high. He said there is still “a good chance and an opportunity” to break the cycle of violence.

“I call on all the parties to stop the violence,” Mood told reporters. “If you use military force, it creates more force, it creates more violence ... so it should always be the last resort.”
Reporters accompanying the observers on the tour interviewed residents who said life was fairly normal during the day but was worrisome after dark.

“The situation is calm during the day but scary at night,” said Maher Jerjous, a 53-year-old resident of the Bab al-Quba district in Hama. “Masked gunmen ... roam the streets. There are kidnappings on public roads. You will not see anyone (on the streets) after six.”

Despite the violence, the international community still sees Annan’s plan as the last chance to prevent Syria from falling into civil war — in part because no other country wants to intervene militarily.

The unrest also is eviscerating the economy, threatening the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. Assad’s opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centers in Syria.

Masood Ahmed, the director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia department, said in an interview that the conflict is damaging the economy.
“This year, we do anticipate there will be a significant contraction in the economy,” he told The Associated Press by phone during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Ahmed acknowledged that the unrest makes it difficult to determine how much the economy is suffering. He said the extent of the damage will depend on how the conflict plays out, what aid Syria gets from outside, and how much effect a September ban by the European Union on Syrian oil imports is affecting the country.

Some 95 percent of Syria’s oil used to go to the EU, and revenue from those sales made up for a quarter of the country’s budget, Ahmed said. He added that there is evidence private-sector Syrian banks are facing a wave of withdrawals, with about a quarter of deposits being pulled out.

“Apart from this terrible human toll, the conflict clearly has an impact on Syria economically,” he said.

In other violence, state-run news agency SANA said that gunmen assassinated Ismail Haidar, the son of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s leader, on Wednesday. Haidar was shot dead by “terrorists” on the highway from Homs to Misyaf, it said.

Haidar’s father is also a member of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, which calls for peaceful, democratic change in Syria but is considered by some to be close to the regime.

The Observatory also said that Bassel Raya, a former basketball player who played on the Syrian national team, died Thursday from wounds suffered last week when he was shot by gunmen in a Damascus suburb.
___

AP Business Writer Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and AP writer Albert Aji in Hama, Syria, contributed to this report. 

Lebanese anti-Syrian regime protestors carry the Syrian revolutionary flag at Martyr's Square in Beirut, Lebanon, last month.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria’s opposition called for widespread protests Friday to test the regime’s commitment to an internationally brokered cease-fire that the U.N. chief described as so fragile it could collapse with a single gunshot.

Regime forces halted heavy shelling and other major attacks in line with the truce that began at dawn Thursday, though there were accusations of scattered violence by both sides. The government ignored demands to pull troops back to barracks, however, defying a key aspect of the plan, which aims to calm a year-old uprising that has killed 9,000 people and has pushed the country toward civil war.

“The onus is on the government of Syria to prove that their words will be matched by their deeds at this time,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva. He said the world was watching with skeptical eyes.

“This cease-fire process is very fragile. It may be broken any time,” Ban added, saying “another gunshot” could doom the truce.

The presence of tanks and troops could discourage any large gatherings, but the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, urged Syrians to demonstrate peacefully on Friday. “Tomorrow, like every Friday, the Syrian people are called to demonstrate even more and put the regime in front of its responsibilities — put the international community in front of its responsibilities.”

A massive protest would be an important test of the cease-fire — whether President Bashar Assad will allow his forces to hold their fire and risk ushering in a weekslong sit-in or losing control over territory that government forces recently recovered from rebels.

So far, the military crackdown has prevented protesters from recreating the powerful displays of dissent seen in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

If the truce holds, it would be the first time the regime has observed an internationally brokered cease-fire since Assad’s regime launched a brutal crackdown 13 months ago.

“The test will come when we start to see protests across the length and breadth of the country,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “Is the Assad regime willing to accept that there will likely be hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in the next few days? And will they accept those protesters, if they are not breaking any laws, occupying certain spaces and towns and centers of towns, should that start to arise?”

An outbreak of violence at a chaotic rally could give the regime a pretext for ending the truce. And it would be difficult to determine the source of such an attack, given that Syria is largely sealed off from journalists and outside observers.

The U.N. chief’s envoy, Kofi Annan, urged the 15-nation U.N. Security Council to authorize an observer mission that would keep the cease-fire going and to demand that Assad order his troops back to barracks, U.N. diplomats said. The council could adopt a resolution on the observers as early as Friday, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

Western powers, skeptical that Assad will call off the killings, said an end to violence is just the first step.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron urged Syria’s allies Russia and China to help “tighten the noose” around Assad’s regime. Russia and China have blocked strong action against Syria at the Security Council, fearing it would open the door to possible NATO airstrikes like those that helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that Assad failed to comply with key obligations, such as pulling back tanks.

“The burden of fully and visibly meeting all of these obligations continues to rest with the regime,” she said. “They cannot pick and choose. For it to be meaningful, this apparent halt in violence must lead to a credible political process and a peaceful, inclusive democratic transition.”

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus published an image on its Facebook page that purports to show tanks deployed within the city of Homs.

“Clearly, Assad is not complying,” the embassy said.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said a heavy security presence, including checkpoints and snipers, remained in the streets despite the cease-fire.

“There is no evidence of any significant withdrawal,” she told reporters in Geneva. “The real test for us today is if people can go and demonstrate peacefully” she added. “This is the real reality check.”

But analysts said the apparent halt in government attacks suggests Assad’s allies are pressuring him for the first time, after shielding him from international condemnation in the past. Annan has visited Russia, Iran and China to get the broadest possible backing for the plan.

On Thursday, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors called the Syrian cease-fire an important step and said they supported implementation of all points in the Annan plan — including the troop and equipment withdrawal.

“We’re encouraged that we do now have a cessation of violence in Syria,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. “We hope it holds. Everybody needs to behave with maximum prudence for that to happen.”

“Frankly, there is one thing which Mr. Annan, I hope, is going to accomplish very soon — clear-cut agreement by opposition leaders to enter into dialogue with the Syrian government,” Churkin added. “This so far has not happened.”

There were signs of how easily the Annan plan could fray.

In the hours after the 6 a.m. deadline, at least four civilians were reported killed — three of them by sniper fire — and the state-run news agency said “terrorist groups” set off a roadside bomb that killed a soldier. But there was no sign of the heavy shelling, rocket attacks and sniper fire that have become routine.

Troops also intensified searches at checkpoints, tightening controls ahead of possible large-scale protests Friday.

Although Syria promised to comply with the cease-fire, the regime carved out an important condition — that it still has a right to defend itself against the terrorists that it says are behind the rebellion.

The government denies that it is facing a popular uprising. Instead, the regime says, terrorists are carrying out a foreign conspiracy to destroy Syria. Because the regime has treated any sign of dissent as a provocation, many observers fear that an abrupt end to the bloodshed will be all but impossible.

In the early days of the Syrian rebellion, Syrian forces used tanks, snipers and machine guns on peaceful protesters, driving many of them to take up arms. Since then, the uprising has transformed into an armed insurgency, with more and more protesters taking up arms and rebels forming a fighting force to bring down the regime.

The rebel Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, has said it will observe the cease-fire. But the opposition is not well-organized, and there are growing fears of groups looking to exploit the chaos.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arming the rebels, but even if they follow through there is no guarantee that such efforts could cripple Assad’s well-armed regime.

Western powers have pinned their hopes on Annan’s plan, in part because they are running out of options. NATO-style military intervention has been all but ruled out, in part because the conflict is so explosive. Syria has had a web of allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran, and conflict could spark a regional conflagration.

With Thursday’s relative ease in violence, many see a U.N. observer team as a key next step.

“It is difficult to fully assess the situation on the ground, in the absence of U.N. observers,” Ban told reporters. “And therefore we are working with the Security Council to send an observer team as promptly as possible.”

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Frank Jordans and John Heilprin in Geneva, Matthew Lee in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
 

Printed on Friday, April 13, 2012 as: Syrians call for anti-Assad protests during truce

Youth stand in a building damaged by tank shells in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria on Thursday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan’s deadline to pull the army back from population centers by April 10.

According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad’s violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.

“Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan’s plan March 27. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday’s assault in Douma as among the worst around the capital.

“Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating,” Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. “The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically.”

He said the violence has not stopped and the situation on the ground “continues to deteriorate.”

Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma, about 8 miles outside Damascus, amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad’s regime over the past year.

Activists said soldiers occupied Douma’s Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.

“No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers,” Syrian activist Omar Hamza told The Associated Press by telephone. “They are like stray dogs attacking sheep.”

He said the shelling went on for eight hours, damaging homes and setting shops on fire. Hamza said the government appeared to be trying to put the heavily populated suburb under control before the cease-fire goes into effect for fear that there will be massive anti-government demonstrations near the capital if regime troops withdraw.

Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas Thursday with tanks in one of the most violent campaigns against the area since the uprising started.

He said troops were using detainees as human shields as they marched into one of the suburb’s main squares.

“Soldiers in the Ghanam Square near the vegetable market were walking behind detainees,” Saeed said via Skype. “They do that so that members of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said troops clashed with army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.

Observers have expressed deep skepticism that Assad will abide by the peace plan, in part because large swaths of the country could slip out of his control if he pulls back the troops.

Analysts say Syria likely will to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time, or to argue that the regime cannot lay down its arms when “terrorists” are on the attack.

The regime denies that the uprising is the result of a popular will in Syria, calling it a foreign conspiracy being carried out by terrorists and gangs.

Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha said Syria was ready to cooperate with Annan’s plan “as long as long as it also puts an end to the criminal acts being committed by the armed terrorist groups.” The Syrian Foreign Ministry disputed the U.N. death toll of 9,000, saying 6,143 people — “civilians and military, women and children” — have been killed.

Hilal Khashan, political science professor at American University of Beirut, said the regime is trying to make gains on the ground before the deadline.

“What will happen afterward is something similar to a low-intensity guerrilla warfare, which can go unnoticed by the international community, while the regime tries to give the world the impression that it’s all over and the reform operations are under way,” he said.

Even as the death toll mounts, there is little prospect for international intervention of the type that helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Western leaders have pinned their hopes on Annan’s diplomacy, with the U.S. and its allies unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. Several rounds of sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union have done little to stop the bloodshed, and Syria’s main allies of Russia and China are blocking strong action at the U.N. Security Council.

Still, the regime is under great pressure to comply with Annan’s plan in some way, because Russia and China have thrown their support behind it.

Annan traveled to Moscow and Beijing to secure that support. On April 11, the former U.N. chief is expected in Iran — Syria’s last significant ally in the Middle East — for another diplomatic push on Assad’s supporters.

“Clearly, the violence is still continuing,” Annan said from Geneva, speaking to the General Assembly in a videoconference. “Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily. Military operations in civilian population centers have not stopped.”

Syria has said it is withdrawing from certain areas, and Annan said Syria has informed him of a partial withdrawal from three locations in Daraa, Idlib and Zabadani.

But witnesses and activists deny that.

Mohammed Fares, an activist in Zabadani, denied claims that troops withdrew and said the army is still in the town with checkpoints backed by tanks.

“Troops and tanks are in Zabadani and around it,” he said by telephone.

Other activists reported attacks on both Daraa and Idlib on Wednesday. Activist groups reported about two dozen dead nationwide Thursday.

In planning for a possible cease-fire, a team led by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood arrived in Damascus to begin discussing with Syrian authorities “the eventual deployment of this U.N. supervision and monitoring mission,” Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

He said the U.N. is looking for a team of 200-250 soldiers to monitor a cease-fire.

The deployment of U.N. monitors would first have to be authorized by the 15-nation Security Council.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the government has not yet agreed on a timetable for peacekeepers. “But we will discuss these issues in a democratic way,” he said, “because we do want to listen to them.”As the fighting raged in the north, more Syrians fled to
neighboring Turkey, where the Foreign ministry said some 2,350 people arrived Thursday. Some 1,600 refugees arrived Wednesday and earlier Thursday, according to its disaster management agency. That pushes the number of displaced Syrians in Turkey to 22,000. 

Printed on Friday, April 6, 2012 as: Syrian regime troops keep fighting despite UN

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday the crisis in Syria is getting worse and claiming more lives every day even though President Bashar Assad’s government insists it is withdrawing troops ahead of a U.N. deadline to end the violence.

The U.N. chief appealed to Assad “to show vision and leadership” and keep his pledge to pull troops and heavy weapons out of cities and towns by April 10, and he urged the opposition to be ready to stop all violence if the Syrian government meets the deadline.

“Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating,” Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. “The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically.”

His comments came as activists reported that Syrian troops attacked the Damascus suburb of Douma, an assault they said shows that Assad is intensifying violence in the days before the April 10 deadline. His crackdown on the yearlong uprising has left at least 9,000 people dead, according to the U.N.

Earlier Thursday, a U.N. team arrived in Damascus to start technical preparations for the possible deployment of U.N. monitors for any cease-fire between Syrian troops and rebel forces.

Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy trying to end the conflict, said Syria has informed him of partial withdrawals from three locations — Idlib, Zabadani and Daraa — “but it is clear that more far-reaching action is urgently required.”

“We must silence the tanks, helicopters, mortars and guns, and stop all other forms of violence too: sexual abuse, torture, executions, abductions, destruction of homes, forced displacement, and other such abuses, including on children,” he said.