- Associated Press - Thursday, April 5, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian troops launched a fierce assault on a Damascus suburb Thursday, days ahead of a deadline for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, with activists describing it as one of the most violent attacks around the capital since the year-old uprising began.

In the suburb of Douma, activists said snipers on 20 buildings were firing at “anything that moved” and residents had endured eight hours of shelling.

They said soldiers marched into a main square behind detainees used as human shields. The offensive tapered off by late afternoon, and an activist said five civilians were killed.

A team led by a Norwegian major general arrived in Damascus to negotiate the possible deployment of a U.N. team that would monitor the cease-fire agreement between Syrian government troops and rebel forces, a spokesman for the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said.

Mr. Annan brokered the truce, which is supposed to take effect Tuesday.

But the operation in Douma, along with other offensives around the country, bolstered the opposition’s claim that President Bashar Assad is only intensifying violence ahead of the deadline to start implementing the truce.

Activists say Mr. Assad wants to make gains on the ground before the cease-fire is supposed to take effect.

Mr. Assad accepted Mr. Annan’s cease-fire plan last week, but the violence has continued unabated, and tanks, troops, checkpoints and snipers remain in all major flash-point towns and cities.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he believes Mr. Assad “is deceiving us” when he promises to abide by the peace plan that was brokered by Mr. Annan, a former U.N. chief.

“Can we be optimistic? I am not,” Mr. Juppe told reporters. He said if all the conditions of the cease-fire plan are not met, including the arrival of 200 observers, then “we must go back to the U.N. Security Council.”

Mr. Annan said “alarming levels” of casualties are still being reported daily in Syria.

He told the U.N. General Assembly in a videoconference briefing from Geneva that Syria has informed him of a partial withdrawal from three locations in Daraa, Idlib and Zabadani, though he said more far-reaching action is “urgently needed.”

Mohammed Fares, an activist in Zabadani, denied claims that troops withdrew and said the army is still in the town with checkpoints backed by tanks.

“Troops and tanks are in Zabadani and around it,” he said by telephone.

Other activists reported attacks on both Daraa and Idlib on Wednesday. Activist groups reported around two dozen dead nationwide on Thursday.

There are other signs as well that the government has no intention of abiding by the deal.

The pro-government daily Al Watan quoted an unnamed official saying the government is not bound by Tuesday’s deadline for a cease-fire because that day marks “the beginning of army units’ withdrawal and not the end. It is not a deadline by itself.”

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