Syria truce largely holds; 5 killed in protests
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad hangs alongside the colors of the Russian flag during a pro-regime rally in Damascus, Syria, April 12, 2012, as a U.N.-backed cease-fire went into effect. / AFP/Getty Images
Last Updated 1:44 p.m. ET
(AP) BEIRUT - A Syria cease-fire was largely holding Friday as tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets in the first major test of the U.N.-brokered truce. Activists said regime forces fired live bullets and tear gas in some locations, killing at least five people, but stood back in other areas where demonstrators beat drums, danced and chanted anti-regime slogans.
Since the truce formally took effect Thursday, President Bashar Assad's forces have halted the large-scale shelling attacks that have pushed the country toward civil war over the past 13 months. But security forces backed by tanks, snipers and plainclothes agents maintained an intimidating presence in the streets and scattered violence was reported.
The U.N.-Arab league envoy, Kofi Annan, hoped to dispatch an advance team of up to 30 observers to Syria as quickly as possible to start monitoring the truce, and the U.N. Security Council was to vote on his request as early as Friday. If the relative calm holds, a beefed-up mission of up to 250 members was to follow quickly.
But Western distrust of the regime's intentions runs deep. French President Nicholas Sarkozy told a French TV station Friday that Syria's government must be closely monitored.
"I don't believe Bashar Assad is sincere," he said. "I don't believe in the cease-fire, sadly."
The truce is at the center of Annan's six-point plan to stop the bloodshed and launch talks on Syria's political future. The uprising began in March 2011 with peaceful protests but became increasingly militarized in response to a brutal crackdown by the regime. The fighting has killed an estimated 9,000 people.
Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Friday that the peace plan has been "relatively respected."
However, the regime has ignored at least two major requirements in the plan that it send forces back to their barracks and allow peaceful demonstrations. Troops remain in towns and cities, and the regime insisted that demonstrators seek government permits.
On Friday, Syrian forces tightened security in public squares and outside mosques after opposition leaders called for widespread protests to test the regime's commitment to the Annan plan.
Tens of thousands poured into the street in cities and towns across the country after noon prayers in mosques, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, an activist group that mains a network of monitors on the ground.
The turnout appeared higher than in recent weeks, when a government crackdown and heavy security presence discouraged demonstrators. A particularly large protest of many thousand was reported in the sprawling Damascus suburb of Douma, targeted by regime arrest raids in the days before the truce. "It was an example of what a large peaceful protest can be like when the government does not intervene and fire on people," said local activist Mohammed Saeed.
The regime restricts access of foreign observers, including journalists, and such claims cannot be verified independently.
During Friday's protests, security forces fired live rounds, tear gas or beat protesters in some areas, but amateur videos showed large peaceful and seemingly cheerful anti-government rallies in other locations.
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