The Syrian government has pledged to withdraw its troops and weaponry from civilian areas by one week today, as part of a peace plan signed with UN special envoy Kofi Annan after pressure from its closest ally Russia.

A week ago Bashar al-Assad accepted the six-point plan drawn up by Annan — which included a withdrawal of weapons and troops from residential areas, free access for international aid groups and journalists, the release of political prisoners and plans for a move towards a multi-party government in Syria — but then late last week argued that the government had to end its violence first.

Now the Syrian foreign minister has told Annan that the regime has agreed to an April 10 deadline for taking troops out of population areas, with withdrawal beginning immediately. Annan informed the UN Security Council yesterday of the promised deadline.

“The Syrian government is committed but we are expecting Mr Kofi Annan and some parties in the Security Council also to get the same kind of commitments from the (opposition). A plan wouldn’t be successful unless everybody is committed to it,” said Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari.

Annan also told the security council that an observer mission may need to be deployed to Syria to monitor events, with over 10,000 people already killed in the current Syrian uprising. According to reports, 34 people died — including 16 civilians — in clashes near the Turkish border yesterday.

Russian officials placed pressure on its ally to begin an end to the violence by removing its forces first. “The Syrian government must take the first step and start the troop withdrawal in line with Kofi Annan’s plan,” Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists yesterday.

But Lavrov also noted that rebel fighters had to withdraw as well: “Unless the beginning of such withdrawal is accompanied by a similar action by all those fighting the government of Syria, I don’t think we will achieve any result.”

There’s no word on whether or when the rest of Annan’s six-point plan would go ahead, but the head of the Red Cross has travelled to Syria to speak with officials. “I am determined to see the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent expand their presence, range and scope of activities to address the needs of vulnerable people,” Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger announced in a statement during his trip.

Annan seems confident but other international leaders are still not 100% certain that Assad will abide to his promise. “We have seen commitments to end the violence followed by massive intensifications of violence,” said US Ambassador Susan Rice. “So the United States, for one, would look at these commitments and say, yet again, the proof is the actions, not in the words.”

A former Syrian soldier using the pseudonym Maxim Kawa, now a defector living in northern Iraq, has told UN authorities of the violence they were involved in:

“Kawa said the unit mounted repeated assaults on civilian protesters in Baba Amr, a part of Homs that the army retook in February after 26 days of artillery bombardment, in the towns of Rastan, about 12 miles from Homs, and Tel Kalakh, on Syria’s border with Lebanon.

Kawa’s unit occupied Rastan for eight days last May, losing one soldier to an armed local. “Our officers told us that we must take revenge for our friends,” Kawa said. “They pushed us to kill civilians.”

He said his group of about 50 soldiers dragged 30 men out of their houses, tied their hands behind their backs and took them to the town’s main street.

“We put them against a wall and shot them,” he said.

A truck was sent in to collect the bodies, along with tanks to target the town, but there was a dispute among officers over the next step. A top officer ordered the tanks to retreat, but Kawa’s immediate commander countermanded it, saying he was operating under direct command of the minister of defense. “If the tanks retreat, I will shoot you,” he threatened.

“Use up your ammunition,” Kawa quoted his commander as saying. “You must clean the area, so there is no shooting back.”

Yet a day later there was another demonstration of 400 to 500 men, women and children, and as the crowd chanted “Allahu Akhbar” — God is great — his commander ordered the unit to “shut them up.” First they fired small arms over the crowd. “But they didn’t stop,” Kawa recalled. The commander was angry. “He said, ‘Shell in their midst,’ with a rocket-propelled grenade. I saw with my binoculars that people were killed,” Kawa said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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