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Syria suggests it might not withdraw forces by deadline

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:40 PM EDT, Sun April 8, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An activist calls al-Assad a "liar," saying Syrians are living in constant fear
  • Envoy Kofi Annan says that the recent "escalation of violence is unacceptable"
  • 525 people die in the last week, since Syria signalled it supported a peace plan
  • A Syrian official says it's a "wrong interpretation" that Syria committed to withdrawing troops

(CNN) -- Syria will not commit to pulling its forces from cities only to have "armed terrorist groups" attack, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman said Sunday as opposition activists reported at least 69 deaths in the restive nation.

U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan has said that he expects regime forces to withdraw its forces from urban areas by Tuesday, at which time rebel fighters would also adhere to a cease-fire as part of a peace plan he helped broker.

But Jihad Maqdisi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, said that is a "wrong interpretation" of Syria's intentions, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

While insisting the Damascus government has acted in "good faith," Maqdisi put the onus on Annan for the peace plan to proceed -- saying the envoy "has not offered written guarantees to the Syrian government that the armed groups agreed to stop violence, nor has he offered guarantees that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will commit to stop funding and arming terrorist groups."

And in a statement on state-run TV, Maqdisi said, "Syria will not repeat what happened during the (Arab League) mission, when it committed to the exit of its armed forces from the cities and surrounding areas, then the armed terrorist groups took advantage to arm its members and conduct all forms of terrorism." The statement referred to an Arab League monitoring mission that took place several months ago.

Calling President Bashar al-Assad a "liar," activist Ahmad el-Khalaf told CNN on Monday that he has no faith Syrian forces will leave and stop the violence.

He described the situation in his country and, specifically, in Idlib province where he is, as "outrageous" -- with people having little food to eat or water to drink and living in constant fear amid countless accounts of "women being raped, houses being burned" and "people being slaughtered."

"There is no life here at all," el-Khalaf said. "There are snipers all over, just waiting for someone to stand on his legs (so they can) shoot him. They don't care whether he is male, female, elderly or child. They shoot for fun."

At least 69 people were killed in fresh violence across the country Sunday, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), a network of opposition activists.

That means 525 have been killed since the Syrian government signaled its intention to adhere to Annan's peace plan -- including the April 10 planned withdrawal of its forces from cities -- according to opposition activists.

Some of the worst violence Sunday was in Idlib, where the network reported 28 killed throughout the province (10 if them in the village of Sahel Roh) and that "the village of Bashira was entirely destroyed."

Another 19 died in Homs province and 12 in Hama -- with seven of the people killed there belonging to the same family -- said the LCC. There were also five reported fatalities in Beit Jin outside Damascus, two in Daraa, two in Deir Ezzor and one in Aleppo.

Annan said in a statement Sunday that he was "shocked by recent reports of a surge in violence and atrocities in several towns and villages in Syria, resulting in alarming levels of casualties, refugees and displaced persons, in violation of assurances given to me.

"This is a time when we must all urgently work towards a full cessation of hostilities, providing the space for humanitarian access and creating the conditions for a political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people," Annan said.

"As we get closer to the Tuesday 10 April deadline, I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable," he said.

France's foreign ministry used similar language in a statement Sunday, condemning what it described as "massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime" and expressing "shock (about) the atrocities that continue to" happen within Syria.

Throughout the more than year-long uprising against the regime, the Syrian government has consistently blamed violence on "armed terrorist groups." But U.N. and other world leaders have said the government is engaged in a violent crackdown.

Reports from Syrian opposition activists suggest government forces are slaughtering civilians in an attempt to wipe out dissidents seeking al-Assad's ouster. The al-Assad family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

Rebel fighters have taken up arms, but their strength has often paled in comparison to the better-equipped regime troops.

"This regime is trying, as usual, to create obstacles preventing (the application of) any real and effective solution on the ground to stop the bloodshed," said Abu Fares, the political representative of the Homs Revolutionary Council. "... We can't lay (down) our arms because we don't trust this regime."

"We can't drop our guns until the regime withdraws from the cities," said Lt. Abdullah Odah of the Free Syrian Army, the armed Syrian opposition, in Istanbul. "We didn't start the mass murder. The regime started it. It has to stop killing and then automatically we will stop."

At least 127 people were killed Saturday, including 59 deaths in Hama, according to the LCC.

Syrian forces have been targeting civilians displaced from their homes by earlier fighting, the group said.

Specifically, the LCC said, the regime is attacking villages and farms around the eastern city of Rastan, where fighting a month ago forced out more than 80% of residents. They escaped to the nearby areas but are now coming under attack, the group said Saturday.

Syria said Sunday that the bodies of six "army and law enforcement martyrs" were buried.

CNN cannot independently verify reports of violence and deaths, as the government has severely restricted access to international media.

Annan's six-point plan for Syria includes calls for a cease-fire by both sides and a Syrian-led political process to end the crisis.

On Sunday morning, SANA made little mention of any new violence but showed images of packed demonstrations that it said took place a day earlier.

"Syrian citizens in all the Syrian provinces on Saturday flocked to the main squares to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Baath Arab Socialist Party," SANA said. "The participants in the rallies expressed the Syrian people, army and leadership's steadfastness in the face of the conspiracy hatched against Syria."

SANA reported Saturday that the government sent two identical letters to the president of the U.N. Security Council and to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, accusing Arab and Western countries of backing the armed groups.

In the letters, Syria claimed that "terrorist acts committed by the armed terrorist groups in Syria have increased during the last few days, particularly after reaching an understanding on Kofi Annan's plan," according to SANA.

The letters said 2,088 Syrian forces and 478 police officers have been killed.

One LCC activist in Homs, identified only as Saleem for safety reasons, described a massacre outside a local school that the Syrian army used to launch offensives and detain people.

Saleem said the bodies of 13 people, including youths, were found with signs of torture.

"The truth is we have become used to such massacres. We have seen people beheaded, children killed, bodies torn apart, and nothing surprises us anymore," Saleem said Saturday. "All we could do is pray to all for help and call on the world to intervene."

The United Nations estimates that the fighting in Syria, which began a year ago, has killed at least 9,000 people. The LCC puts the toll at more than 11,000.

CNN's Yousuf Basil, Jim Clancy, Ivan Watson, Kareem Khadder, Samira Said, Salma Abdelaziz, Elwyn Lopez and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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