Syria reports start of troop pullout

Activists deny withdrawal

BEIRUT — Syrian troops began pulling out Tuesday from some calm cities and headed back to their bases a week ahead of a deadline to implement an international cease-fire plan, a government official said.

The claim could not immediately be verified, and activists near the capital Damascus denied troops were leaving their area. They said the day regime forces withdraw from streets, Syria will witness massive protests that will overthrow the government.

“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 in Damascus without saying when the withdrawal began.

He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

President Bashar Assad agreed just days ago to an April 10 deadline to implement international envoy Kofi Annan’s truce plan. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities and observe a cease-fire. Rebel fighters are to immediately follow by ceasing violence.

Khaled al-Omar, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, denied that any withdrawal was under way in his area.

“This is impossible. I can see a checkpoint from my window,” he said via Skype, adding the regime forces were still in the main square.

Earlier in the day, opposition activists charged that the regime was racing to crush opponents ahead of the cease-fire deadline by carrying out intense raids, arrests and shelling on Tuesday.

Opposition activists have blasted Mr. Annan’s plan as too little, too late, and are particularly angry that it does not call for Mr. Assad to leave power - the central demand of the uprising.

The opposition suspects Mr. Assad will manipulate the plan and use it to stall for time while his forces continue to crack down.

“He thinks he can win more time to take control of all Syrian cities,” activist Adel al-Omari said by phone from the southern town of Dael, where regime forces have been torching activists’ homes since they raided on Monday.

“This won’t happen, because as soon as he withdraws his tanks from the cities, the people will come out and push to topple the regime.”

Western leaders have cautiously accepted the April 10 deadline while pointing out that Mr. Assad has broken previous promises and insisting the regime must be judged by its actions.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Syria had informed its close ally Moscow that it has started implementing the plan. The ministry’s statement did not say which troops, if any, had been withdrawn or provide further details. It called on rebel forces to follow suit.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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