Syrian forces, rebels fight ahead of deadline

Syrians wave revolutionary flags and chant slogans at a night protest against President Bashar Assad in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, April 2, 2012.
AP Photo

(AP) BEIRUT - Syrian opposition activists charged Tuesday that the regime is trying to crush a yearlong uprising before a U.N. truce plan comes into effect next week, as troops carried out intense raids, arrests and shelling.

Meanwhile, a Syrian government official told The Associated Press on Tuesday that troops have begun withdrawing from some cities and are returning to their bases.

The official told the AP that the unconfirmed withdrawal was mainly from calm cities while in tense areas, regime forces are redeploying and taking positions on the outskirts.

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Syria has accepted an April 10 deadline to carry out international envoy Kofi Annan's plan, which requires it to withdraw its forces from towns and cities and observe a cease-fire - to be immediately followed by a withdrawal by rebel fighters. Then all sides are supposed to discuss a political solution to the year-old conflict that has edged the country toward civil war.

The plan also calls for an immediate daily two-hour halt to fighting so humanitarian aid can reach suffering civilians, as well as access for aid groups and journalists.

Opposition activist have blasted the plan as too little, too late and for not stipulating that Assad must leave power. They also accuse Assad of using the plan to stall so he can continue his crackdown.

"He thinks he can win more time to take control of all Syrian cities," activist Adel al-Omari said by phone from the southern town of Dael, where regime forces have been torching activists' homes since raiding the town on Monday. "This won't happen, because as soon as he withdraws his tanks from the cities, the people will come out and push to topple the regime."

Western leaders have cautiously accepted the April 10 deadline while pointing out that Assad has broken previous promises and insisting the regime must be judged by its actions.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Syria had informed it that it has started implementing the plan. The ministry's statement did not say which troops -- if any -- had been withdrawn or provide further details. It called on rebel forces to follow suit.

The Syrian government has not commented publicly on the April 10 deadline. It has accepted other peace plans in recent months only to ignore them on the ground. An Arab League effort that included sending in monitors to promote a cease-fire collapsed in violence in November.

It also remains unclear whether rebel forces fighting government troops under the banner of the Free Syrian Army would respect a cease-fire. Dozens of local militias in different parts of the country have only loose links to each other and to their official leadership in Turkey.

One activist in the central Homs region said Tuesday that the area's biggest rebel group, the Farouq Brigade, would cease its attacks on government targets if the government stopped shelling towns and cities.

"They will continue to resist until they see that there is a positive step from the regime," Mahmoud Orabi said via Skype from the town of Qusair. "If the regime withdraws and carries out the plan, the Free Army will respect it, too."

Activists said Syrian forces shelled rebellious neighborhoods in the central city of Homs and the nearby towns Qusair and Rastan Tuesday and carried out raid and arrest campaigns elsewhere.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least two civilians were killed in clashes between rebels and government forces that stormed the town of Taftanaz and torched a number of homes.

The group also said government forces carried out raids and burned homes in the provinces of Hama in the country's center and in Daraa in the south.

Gunmen in the northern city of Aleppo attacked the home of the head of military institutions late Monday and killed two guards, the groups said.

Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said at least 13 people were killed nationwide, six of them in Homs province and 5 in the raid of Taftanaz.

The activists' claims could not be independently verified. The Syrian government rarely comment on specific incidents and has barred most media from working in the country.

Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with peaceful protests calling for political reforms. Assad's forces reacted with deadly force to the spreading dissent, and many in the opposition took up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have been killed.

Relentless government shelling of rebellious areas and frequent clashes with rebels have taken a high toll on Syria's civilians, and the International Committee of the Red Cross pressed Syria on Tuesday to give aid workers access to embattled areas.

ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger met with officials from Syria's foreign, interior and health ministries, as well as the head of the local Red Cross branch. He said before his visit that he would appeal for greater access to the sick, wounded and displaced and press for a two-hour daily halt to the fighting to allow aid in.