- Associated Press - Saturday, March 31, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria rejected international envoy Kofi Annan’s call for the regime to halt violence first just days after the government agreed to a cease-fire plan. A senior official declared victory over the opposition.

It was the government’s first response to an appeal by Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, to stop military operations first as “the stronger party” in a “gesture of good faith” to the lightly armed opposition. Annan brokered the agreement aimed at stopping the bloodshed and Assad agreed to it on Monday.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said the government will not pull tanks and troops from towns and cities engulfed by unrest before life returns to normal there.

“The battle to bring down the state in Syria has already ended and the battle of reinforcing stability has started,” Makdessi said in an apparent reference to a string of recent regime offensives that drove rebels from key strongholds. He spoke on state TV late Friday.

Activists reported fresh violence Saturday that killed more than two dozen people. The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising to oust Assad began a year ago.

The Foreign Ministry statement raised serious doubts about whether Annan’s plan to end the conflict will even get off the ground.

The six-point proposal requires the government to immediately pull troops and heavy weapons out of cities and towns, and abide by a two-hour halt in fighting every day to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations.

The government stance was reminiscent of a failed mediation attempt by the Arab League around the start of the new year. Assad also agreed to that plan to pull tanks and artillery out of cities and allow in foreign monitors in to assess compliance. But the mission ended in failure and Assad ultimately did not comply with the terms of the agreement he had signed on to.

The government blames armed groups carrying out a foreign conspiracy for the violence.

The opposition said the government appears to be playing for time by indicating broad agreement with the plan but then quibbling over or ignoring the details. A similar accusation was made when Assad agreed to the first Arab League plan.

Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, said it was clear Assad’s acceptance of Annan’s peace plan was another “lie and a maneuver” to gain time.

“We have no illusions over the possibility of the mission’s success because Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime have no credibility to engage in a political process,” he said at a news conference in Istanbul.

“It will soon become obvious the regime won’t even implement the first clause of the agreement.”

Syria’s uprising has become increasingly militarized and opposition groups now say their only hope is to drive out Assad. International opponents of Assad are struggling to pin down a strategy, as the peace plan put forward by Annan falters right out of the gate.

“The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side,” Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva on Friday. “We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith … The deadline is now.”

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