Arabs, UN push Syria to act on peace plan as 15 more killed

BAGHDAD Thu Mar 29, 2012 6:36pm IST

Syrians attend a mass funeral for people whom anti-government protesters said were killed by Syrian security forces in earlier protests against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Duma near Damascus March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout

Syrians attend a mass funeral for people whom anti-government protesters said were killed by Syrian security forces in earlier protests against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Duma near Damascus March 26, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Shaam News Network/Handout

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Arab leaders pressed President Bashar al-Assad to act quickly on a U.N.-backed peace plan he has agreed to, having dropped their demand that he leave power, as fighting between Syrian security forces and rebels killed at least 15 people on Thursday.

"The solution for the crisis is still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition," Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Arab heads of state at a summit meeting in Baghdad.

Pre-empting the summit, Damascus said on Wednesday it would reject any initiative from the Arab League, w hich suspended Syria in November, and would deal only with individual states.

But United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon kept up pressure on Assad, saying he must turn his acceptance of the six-point peace plan into action, to divert his country from a "dangerous trajectory" with risks for the entire region.

"It essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation, there is no time to waste," Ban told an Arab League Summit.

In Istanbul, Syrian opposition representatives met to try to settle deep internal disputes before the arrival of Western foreign ministers for a "Friends of Syria" conference on Sunday to map out where the year-old uprising is heading.

BATTLES AND AMBUSHES

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence, reported 13 civilians, fighters and soldiers killed in clashes across the country.

In northern Hama province, an army convoy was ambushed and two soldiers killed. In Idlib province three people died when the army raided a rural area east of Maarat al-Nuaman.

In the city of Homs, three people were killed by army fire. Two died when the army opened fire in villages near the border with Lebanon and three were killed in clashes in rural districts of northern Hama province, the Observatory said.

The state news agency SANA said two colonels were shot dead in a morning attack in Aleppo, Syria's second city.

"Four terrorists shot Abdul Karim al-Rai and Fuad Shaaban ... while they were on their way to work," SANA said.

It said gunmen kidnapped Air Force General Mohammad Amr al Darbas on his way to work in Damascus province.

Western powers have expressed scepticism about Assad's acceptance of the peace plan. Russia has urged opposition groups to endorse it as Damascus has done.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad "has not taken the necessary steps to implement" the peace plan of Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General who is now special Syria envoy for the U.N. and the Arab League.

Syria's big-power backers, Russia and China, have cranked up the pressure on Assad by endorsing the Annan plan, with the unspoken implication that if he fails to act on it, they may be prepared to back action by the U.N. Security Council.

ARAB VIEWS DIFFER

Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the push to isolate Syria, suggesting arming Syria's opposition.

Arab states outside the Gulf, such as Algeria and Shi'ite-led Iraq urge more caution, fearing that toppling Assad could spark sectarian violence.

Annan's six-point plan calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists.

Diplomats say one of his ideas is for a U.N. observer mission to monitor any eventual ceasefire, a mechanism likely to require a U.N. Security Council mandate. An Arab League mission last year failed to make any difference to the crisis.

The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed 9,000 people. Damascus blames foreign-backed "terrorists" for the violence and says 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for Saudi Arabia and later Turkey, to consult Gulf states and promote unity in Syrian opposition ranks, there was no sign that President Barack Obama was about to drop his hands-off approach.

Unless opposition splits are healed, there is little chance that Assad's opponents can oust him without a military intervention the West clearly does not want, and some analysts are saying it is time force the opposition to talk to Assad.

The Obama administration's approach to the crisis will continue to be "wary and slow-moving", said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

"If Assad has reached a turning point and really made headway against insurgents, I believe there is a good chance he will 'win' without too much American pushback," O'Hanlon said.

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