GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrian authorities told international mediator Kofi Annan they had started withdrawing troops from three areas as part of a peace plan to end more than a year of fighting with rebels, his spokesman said on Thursday.
The report was undermined by fresh clashes between government forces and insurgents in another area in a town near the capital Damascus.
Fighting shows no sign of abating even though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed more than a week ago to a six-point peace plan drawn up by Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria.
"Yes, they have told us that they have begun withdrawing troops from certain areas," Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told a news briefing in Geneva. "They have specified three cities - Deraa, Idlib and Zabadani."
Annan's office was trying to verify the Syrian assertion, he said. Russia has also said the Syrian withdrawal is under way.
"I really can't go into details on the verification process. But what I can tell you is that we are looking at a range of sources and cross-checking that information carefully," Fawzi said.
U.N. member states were being asked to provide troops for a ceasefire monitoring mission, to be deployed in Syria after April 10, according to the spokesman.
Media reports that 200 to 250 unarmed monitors would be deployed were "not very far off", Fawzi told journalists, adding the force would be deployed incrementally.
An advance team sent by Annan arrived in Damascus on Thursday to begin discussing their full deployment, which requires a U.N. Security Council resolution.
"The planning team are all in Damascus now. There are about 10 or 11 of them," Fawzi later told Reuters.
But the team would not be involved in trying to pin down reports of withdrawals, he said.
The peace plan set out by Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, sets a deadline of April 10 for withdrawing troops and heavy weaponry, followed within 48 hours by a halt to the fighting by both sides.
"What we expect on the 10th of April is that the Syrian government will have completed its withdrawal from populated centres, the withdrawal of military units from populated centres, that it would have stopped moving any military units into cities and that we begin a 48-hour period during which there will be a complete cessation of all forms of violence by all parties," Fawzi said.
"So the clock starts ticking on the 10th for both sides to cease all forms of violence," he added.
Annan's office is in close contact with the Syrian opposition both inside and outside of the country, he said.
"We are receiving positive signals from the opposition that once the government abides by the 10th of April deadline, they too will lay down their arms," he said.
But a halt in the violence is only the beginning of a process aimed at ultimately meeting the "legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people", Fawzi said.
"The cessation of violence by all parties is not an end in itself. It will signal the beginning of a political process.
"In fact, Mr. Annan has already begun not only thinking about it, but working towards a formula that would be acceptable to all which I can't go into now," he said.
Annan will hold talks in Tehran on April 11 with senior Iranian officials on Syria, he said, referring to Syria's major ally in the region.
He is due to brief the General Assembly later on Thursday, to apprise them of developments since he addressed the closed-door Security Council on Monday, Fawzi said.
Russia and China have been "extremely supportive" of Annan's plan, he said.
Asked whether he expected them to back a Security Council resolution on the troop deployment, he said: "Whether the Russians and Chinese will be on board, so far they have been on board, as you know, they have been extremely supportive of the Annan six-point plan."
Additional reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Heavens