Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Syrian military 'randomly firing on civilians,' opposition says

120315073611-syrian-flag-story-top Despite a promise by the Syrian government to withdraw its forces from population centers, the military pounded opposition-held northern towns and clashed with defectors, activists said Tuesday.

The Syrian army shelled Binnish, Taftanaz and Taoum and its helicopters fired on fleeing civilians Tuesday, said the Binnish Coordination Committee, an opposition group.

"This is the most intense fighting we have witnessed thus far in Binnish since the beginning of the revolution," said Basher, an opposition activist. "We haven't seen this much random shelling on Binnish and the surrounding areas. They are using helicopters and randomly firing on civilians in the cities."

Crossfire and shelling in Taftanaz killed at least 10 people, an activist group in Binnish said.

Clashes erupted between the military and resistance fighters in the provinces of Daraa, Idlib and the Damascus countryside. A suspected militant group attacked the home of a military official, killing two of his bodyguards in Aleppo, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The violence comes a day after diplomats said the Syrian government agreed to start pulling its forces and will complete its withdrawal by April 10.

The Annan plan calls for authorities to pull its forces and stop troop movement toward population centers and end the use of heavy weapons.

An advance team is headed into Syria to discuss the deployment of an observation team to monitor a ceasefire, Annan's office said.

Syria's withdrawal announcement came the same day that Russia -- which, along with China, has vetoed U.N. Security Council attempts to condemn the Bashar al-Assad regime -- pressured Damascus to withdraw its troops.

"If the withdrawal of troops is not accompanied by similar actions of those who fight against the Syrian government, I believe that no results will be yielded soon," said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to the state-run Itar-Tass news agency.

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, expressed skepticism over the Syrians' promise to start pulling out its troops.

"Let's be realistic," she said on Monday. "We've seen commitments to end the violence followed by massive intensification of the violence. The United States would say yet again, the proof is in the actions, not in the words."

Annan's peace plan also addresses humanitarian aid and the plight of detainees -- two issues on the agenda of International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger, now meeting top government ministers in Damascus. Kellenberger also plans to visit areas affected by the fighting and observe the work of the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

''I am determined to see the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent expand their presence, range and scope of activities to address the needs of vulnerable people," Kellenberger said before he arrived in Damascus on Monday. "This will be a key element of my talks with the Syrian officials."

The ICRC has obtained greater access to many areas affected by fighting, a development it calls "positive."

Kellenberger is discussing an expansion of those activities, the implementation of a two-hour daily pause to distribute relief, and greater access to detainees, said ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan.

"Visiting people who have been detained remains a priority for us," said Kellenberger, making his third visit to Syria since June. The ICRC wants to interview detainees without the presence of security forces or other detainees, Hassan said.

The Syrian regime has consistently blamed "armed terrorist groups" for violence in Syria, but most reports from inside the country suggest the government is pummeling neighborhoods in an attempt to wipe out dissidents seeking President Bashar al-Assad's ouster.

The United Nations has estimated at least 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since the unrest began more than a year ago, while opposition activists have put the toll at more than 10,000.


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