x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

54 killed on day Syria says its troops 'are already pulling out'

Opposition activists claim Syrian government is stepping up attacks ahead of the planned April 10 ceasefire.

BEIRUT // At least 50 people died in Syria as fighting raged across the country yesterday, but officials said troops had begun withdrawing from some areas ahead of next week's ceasefire deadline.

Opposition activists said the government was stepping up attacks ahead of the planned April 10 ceasefire. Rebels are to put their guns down 48 hours after that deadline.

A Syrian official said late on Tuesday that security forces had already begun pulling out from some towns and cities.

"Forces began withdrawing to outside calm cities and are returning to their bases, while in tense areas, they are pulling out to the outskirts," the government official told the Associated Press.

He did not reveal when the withdrawal began, and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

But the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of opposition activists, said at least 54 people were killed across Syria yesterday, including eight children. The Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union had earlier placed the number at 22 dead.

Both groups said most of the dead were from Homs, one of the main targets of the government's assault against opposition supporters.

Shelling was reported in the neighbourhoods of Zaafaraneh and Rabee Arabi, where at least five people were killed, according to the LCC.

More than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad began a year ago.

The government says about 3,000 of its security forces have been killed by what it calls terrorists.

The Syrian state news agency, Sana, yesterday reported "terrorists" had killed four women and a "number of citizens" in the town of Dir Baalba on Tuesday. Sana also reported clashes between armed groups and security forces in the town of Taftanaz in Idlib, in which "several terrorists" and three soldiers were killed.

Although the violence continues, Mr Al Assad has agreed to UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's plan for a withdrawal of military forces and a ceasefire by Tuesday.

But there are fears his regime may use the next week to intensify the violence.

Amnesty International has counted 232 deaths since the government accepted Mr Annan's plan on March 27. Still, a UN team, led by Norwegian General Robert Mood, is due to arrive in Syria to discuss the deployment of about 250 UN-Arab League observers to monitor the planned ceasefire.

Russia, which remains a strong ally of the Al Assad regime, has said the "Friends of Syria" meeting of more than 80 nations and organisations in Istanbul this week had undermined Mr Annan's mission.

"Everyone has supported Kofi Annan's plan, but decisions at the 'Friends of Syria' group meeting aimed at arming the opposition and at new sanctions undermine peace efforts," Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said.

Mr Lavrov went on to say that even if opposition rebel fighters were "armed to the teeth", they would not defeat the Syrian army and that providing weapons would escalate the violence.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been urging the Syrian government to grant aid workers access to embattled areas. Yesterday, a team led by Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC president, visited the southern province of Deraa, along with two lorries of humanitarian supplies.

Meanwhile, an aid distribution centre in Homs used by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was destroyed yesterday, according to activists and a source close to the organisation.

Some reports said the building ignited after shelling on the neighbourhood of Qarabees.

But a source connected to the Red Crescent said saboteurs had set the building alight.



* With additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press