By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers –
BEIRUT — A U.N.-sponsored plan to end the violence in Syria got off to a rocky start Tuesday, with Syria’s foreign minister claiming that soldiers had begun to pull out of urban areas while anti-government activists charged that military operations were continuing throughout the country.
Tuesday’s death toll appeared to be substantially lower than Monday’s, but U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan expressed disappointment that the Syrian government had not pulled troops from urban areas as promised. He said intelligence he’d been given showed that government forces were moving toward “other areas which have not previously been targets.”
But he also said it was “too early” to declare the cease-fire plan a failure and said he hoped that his peace plan would be implemented by Thursday, when both government forces and rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad are to have stopped their attacks.
“We still have time between now and (April) 12 to stop the violence, and I appeal to all concerned, the government in the first place, and the opposition forces,” he said. “It’s time the violence stops, to stop the guns, and it’s time the military went back to the barracks.”
Security forces were continuing to patrol in a number of towns and villages, according to interviews with anti-government activists across the country. In at least one town in central Syria, troops occupied the town center, displacing thousands of residents.
Shelling continued in some parts of the central Syrian cities of Homs and Hama, and activists reported government troops and militiamen burned houses in Tal Refaat, a town near the northern city of Aleppo.
Activists reported 11 deaths in a pair of villages near Hama after Syrian military operations and raids in other areas, and the Reuters news agency reported 26 people had died in Homs. Clashes between the military and anti-government rebels were reported in the southern city of Daraa.
Still, the violence appeared to be far less than on Monday, when the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 134 people had been killed in a variety of attacks, which included helicopter assaults on the towns of Misqan and Marea near Aleppo and on families fleeing fighting in nearby Tal Refaat. Six towns near the northern city of Idlib were also subjected to artillery barrages and helicopter attacks Monday, the group reported.
On Tuesday, the Syrian state news agency, SANA, reported that 33 police officers and soldiers had been buried, but it did not say specifically when they had died.
Annan made his comments after touring camps in southern Turkey, where he got an angry reception from refugees chanting “Syria, Syria.” U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, both advocates of arming the anti-Assad rebels, also toured refugee camps, where they received a hero’s welcome.
Activists said Tuesday said that the military’s “scorched earth” tactics of recent weeks appeared intended to deprive the rebels of sympathetic populations and to intimidate those who would demonstrate against the government.
An anti-Assad activist in Mudiq, 40 miles northwest of Hama, reported that residents of that city’s ancient citadel, a tourist attraction in better times, were still waiting to return to their homes after a military operation that began a month ago and included 17 straight days of shelling. Even though the shelling has ended, the 3,000 residents who lived in the walled center section of the city have been unable to return home. The town of 20,000 is largely empty now, with most of the residents having fled.