Demand by regime for ‘guarantees’ scuttles deal in Syria

Opposition balks at laying down arms first

BEIRUT — A U.N.-brokered peace deal for Syria appeared to collapse Sunday as the government made a new demand that its opponents provide “written guarantees” to lay down their weapons before regime forces withdraw from cities, a call swiftly rejected by the country’s main rebel group.

The deal, brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, was due to take effect on Tuesday, paving the way for negotiations to end the country’s year-old crisis, which the U.N. estimates has killed 9,000 people.

Mr. Annan said last week that Syrian President Bashar Assad had accepted the plan and its call for government forces to pull back from urban centers.

But on Sunday, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi placed a new condition - that the opposition agree in writing “to halt violence with all its forms and their readiness to lay down weapons.”

The commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, said his group was prepared to abide by the Annan agreement, but rejected the government’s new unilateral demand.

The Free Syrian Army does not recognize the regime “and for that reason we will not give guarantees,” he told the Associated Press by telephone from his base in neighboring Turkey. He said government forces should return to their bases and remove checkpoints from the streets.

Mr. Annan’s six-point peace plan calls for government forces to withdraw from population centers by Tuesday, to be followed by a full cease-fire by both sides by 6 a.m. Thursday.

However, with the deadline looming, Syrian forces have stepped up attacks on restive towns in recent days, and activists say scores of civilians have been killed daily.

Mr. Annan condemned the government offensive, saying in a statement Sunday that “the present escalation of violence is unacceptable.”

He also reminded the government “of the need for full implementation of its commitments,” though it was unclear whether his statement was issued before or after Damascus imposed new conditions for complying with the truce.

The cease-fire was meant to pave the way for negotiations between the government and the opposition to end the country’s year-old crisis. Street protests against Mr. Assad erupted 13 months ago, inspired by the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy uprisings in the region, but the revolt has turned violent in the face of a brutal regime crackdown.

Since Mr. Assad first agreed to the peace plan, the Syrian opposition and Western leaders have expressed skepticism about his regime’s intentions because of broken promises in the past and the recent escalation in attacks on opposition strongholds.

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