Syria has accepted a UN-sponsored peace plan, international envoy Kofi Annan said, even as troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad raided rebel forces who have taken refuge in Lebanon.
Assad made a rare foray into the heartland of Syria’s year-old uprising, visiting a rebel stronghold in the city of Homs that his forces had overrun after weeks of shelling and gunfire, apparently to make the point that he can now tour the streets of the once bitterly contested district.
Syrian state television showed Assad, wearing an open-necked shirt with a blue suit, walking casually in the devastated streets of the Baba Amr district and talking to groups of supporters and troops in combat gear.
Baba Amr was an emblem of opposition and rebel army defiance until it was reclaimed by government forces earlier this month after 26 days of heavy bombardment which opposition activists said was totally indiscriminate.
“Life will return to normal in Baba Amr, better than it was before,” Assad said.
Activists says hundreds of civilians and opponents of Assad were killed in Baba Amr in February by shelling and snipers.
“He thinks he won and scored a great victory,” said opposition activist Saif Hurria in Homs. “He wants to show the world he defeated and put down a revolution. But… it seems he can’t even release the video until he has left Homs. That is not control.”
Opposition supporter Abu Jaafar said Assad’s appearance in Homs was “giving the green light to kill like this again”.
Annan represents the UN and the Arab League. His spokesman said Assad had accepted the basic terms of a peace plan, which calls for national dialogue but does not hinge on him leaving office.
Western and Arab leaders are due to meet in Istanbul on Apr 1 to discuss a political transition, and the Arab League and Turkey were pressing various wings of the Syrian opposition to try to unite.
In a session this week, the People’s Assembly of Syria called on Assad to postpone parliamentary elections set for May 7 to allow time for what it called the consolidation of comprehensive reforms and the outcome of a national dialogue.
Assad has used the army to crush protests against his 12-year rule but his Alawite Muslim minority and its allies still have substantial popular support in the country.
Annan had said that Assad’s government could not resist the “winds of transformation”, but it was too early to introduce any timeline for a peaceful solution.
He said Assad’s acceptance of the peace plan was “an important initial step” but conceded he faced a “long and difficult task” in ending the fighting and said he could not set any timetable.
US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in Washington that if would be unwise, from his experience, to take Assad at his word. “You want to see steps on the ground,” he said.
Annan’s plan calls for withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, humanitarian assistance being allowed in unimpeded, release of prisoners, freedom of movement and access for journalists to go in and out.
The UN estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria’s upheaval over the past year, UN Middle East envoy Rovert Serry told the Security Council. Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
Opposition activists reported several civilian casualties in shootings in the cities of Idlib and Homs, in fighting between government forces and rebels.
Video posted online by activists showed thick black smoke and blazing buildings in a district of Homs. There were wounded and bleeding men and women lying in a street.
Syrian troops advanced into north Lebanon, destroying farm buildings in pursuit of Syrian rebels, residents said. Lebanese security sources denied that the Syrian troops had stepped onto Lebanese territory.
The border is poorly marked. Incursions have been reported in the past months without triggering Lebanese protests.
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