Clashes erupt after Syria claims troop pullout
BEIRUT — Syrian troops clashed with army defectors and shelled rebellious districts in the central city of Homs Wednesday, killing at least 11 civilians a day after the government claimed it had begun a troop withdrawal ahead of the deadline to implement an international truce plan.
Activists said the latest deaths included a man and his son who died in gunfire during fighting in the Qusour district of Homs. They said the renewed violence proved President Bashar Assad’s regime was not serious about implementing the cease-fire brokered by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
Russia, a key ally of Assad, warned other nations not to arm the Syrian opposition, saying it would only escalate hostilities. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two Sunni-ruled nations, have backed the idea of arming the rebels fighting government forces, but the West remains opposed. Western nations however did create a multimillion dollar fund for the opposition at a meeting in Istanbul.
Assad agreed earlier this week to an April 10 deadline to implement the plan put forward by international envoy Kofi Annan. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities and observe a cease-fire. Rebel fighters are to immediately follow by ceasing violence.
Opposition activists charged Tuesday that the regime was racing to crush opponents ahead of the cease-fire deadline by carrying out intense raids, arrests and shelling.
A Syrian government official said Tuesday evening that troops had already started pulling out of some calm cities, a week ahead of the April 10 deadline.
“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 condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
In Homs, a bastion of dissent against Assad’s regime, opposition figure Mohammed Saleh said a series of loud blasts rattled windows in his home, and heavy machine gun fire was heard across parts of the old city.
He said it was not clear what caused the blasts. In recent days, armed defectors known as the Free Syrian Army have taken control of the national hospital in the Jouret al-Shayah district and two other government buildings.
“There is no sign of any withdrawal or calm in Homs,” Saleh said. “The situation is just as bad as it has been for the past few months.”
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed thick flames and black smoke billowing from above what appeared to be a residential building in the Qusour district of Homs. Another video showed a huge fire and explosion behind the minaret of the Dar al-Salam mosque in the Qarabees district.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a man and his son were among seven civilians killed in fighting in Qusour neighborhood. Three others were killed in shelling of the town of Talbiseh in Homs province and one in Deir Baalba.
A 50-year-old former political detainee identified as Ahmad al-Othman and his 40-year-old brother Adnan, a lawyer, were killed overnight when troops fired on their car from a machine gun mounted on a tank in Idlib province, according to activists in the northern area and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Their deaths along with an elderly men in Idlib brought the civilian deaths Wednesday to 13, according to the Observatory.