Syrian soldiers hold fire, but tanks stay in position
BEIRUT SYRIAN troops held their fire in the hours after a UNbacked ceasefire took effect at dawn on Thursday, casting a silence over rebellious towns they had bombarded heavily in recent days.
But the lull did little to convince opposition activists and Western powers of President Bashar al Assad’s good faith in observing a peace plan agreed with international envoy Kofi Annan. In defiance of that deal, Syrian troops and tanks were still in position inside many towns, activists told Reuters.
A report on state media that a “terrorist” bomb blasted an army bus and killed a senior officer in Aleppo after the truce began raised a possibility troops will keep a pledge to hit back. State media also reported a bomb wounding officers near Idlib and a ruling party member shot dead in Deraa in the south.
The Syrian government bars access to most independent media.
The exile opposition called the ceasefire “only partially observed” due to the army’s failure to leave the streets and its leader urged a renewal on Friday of peaceful protests, which have been subdued of late by fear.
But he warned those who might take part that they could expect government forces to open fire.
The Interior Ministry urged rebels to surrender, promising to free those who had not killed, and broadcast an appeal to the thousands who fled battered cities like Homs and Hama to return from the havens they found in Turkey, Lebanon and within Syria.
But streets in troubled towns remained nervously empty. An exile opposition spokeswoman said three people had been killed during the morning by security forces, and dozens more arrested.
Speaking after the 6 am (0300 GMT) UN deadline passed, Abu Rami, an activist in Homs said: “It was a bloody night. There was heavy shelling on the city ..
But now it is calm, and there is no shooting.” Assaults on restive neighbourhoods had become more intense after Assad accepted Annan’s timetable. Government spokesman Jihad Makdissi, speaking before the report of the bombing of the army bus, said Damascus was “fully committed” to Annan’s success and that there would be no breach of the ceasefire by the government if the rebels did not attack.
At the United Nations, Annan was to brief the deeply divided Security Council at 1400 GMT, though diplomats expect a full report from him only on Monday.
Western powers, though hesitant to intervene militarily, are lobbying Russia, a key ally for Assad, to drop its veto on other UN measures to pressure Syria into abandoning four decades of autocratic rule by his family.
The 13-month crisis has pushed pressure waves out along faultlines that crisscross the Middle East, pitting Sunni Arabs against Shi’ite Iran, and alarming Turkey, whose prime minister on Thursday cited his country’s right to call on its NATO allies to defend a border where Syrian troops opened fire this week.
People contacted in the flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib, which saw sustained shelling by Assad’s forces over the past week, reported calm. Damascus too seemed quiet.