Syria steps up assault as UN moves to send monitors

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Fierce clashes erupted Tuesday as Syria’s regime sent reinforcements into rebel areas despite a peace pledge, and the UN said it would rush an advance team to Damascus to negotiate a monitoring mission.
The surge in violence comes a day after the UN Security Council was told by peace envoy Kofi Annan that President Bashar al-Assad had given assurances he would “immediately” start pulling back his forces and complete a military withdrawal from urban areas by April 10.
Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger meanwhile was in Damascus holding talks with Syrian officials aimed at securing a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire — a condition set out in Annan’s six-point peace plan.
Monitors said heavy fighting Tuesday engulfed opposition strongholds in the southern region of Daraa, the northwestern Idlib province and near the capital.
Dozens of armoured personnel carriers arrived in Dael, a town in Daraa province where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, as well as in Zabadani, a bastion of the rebellion near Lebanon.
Dael activist Sayyed Mahmud told AFP the situation was extremely tense in the town.
“They burned down 14 houses yesterday. They are arresting people and have sent in troop reinforcements,” he said.
“As part of the regime’s campaign to starve the people, troops are raiding homes, destroying food stocks and equipment. They go into bakeries and destroy the dough. There are 15-hour power cuts a day.”
In Idlib, which borders Turkey, fighting was taking place on the outskirts of Taftanaz, where two civilians and one soldier were killed amid heavy machinegun fire and shelling, said the Observatory.
“Four civilians have been wounded and several homes torched,” it added. “Rebels managed to disable a troop carrier and have killed or wounded a number of government troops.”
In Damascus province, clashes were reported in the towns of Douma and in Zabadani, where the army was carrying out arrest raids.
The Observatory has charged that the army is torching and looting rebel houses across Syria in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity.
In Geneva, a spokesman for Annan said the office of the UN-Arab League envoy expected a “UN advance team on the deployment of monitors to arrive in Syria in the next 48 hours.”
In a briefing Monday to the Security Council, Annan sought a broad mandate for the monitoring mission as he reported “no progress” on reaching a ceasefire, according to diplomats.
The Security Council was also told that it could take at least two months to get a full mission of about 250 observers into Syria if a ceasefire is declared, one diplomat said.
Syria’s UN envoy, Bashar Jaafari, confirmed the April 10 date had been agreed “by common accord” between Annan and his government.
Opposition figure Riyad Turk on Tuesday urged support for Anan’s plan as he called for a national dialogue while insisting, however, that Assad must first step down.
“A political solution… must first and foremost start with the president giving up power, and launching a national dialogue that does not exclude any political component of the Syrian people, including regime members whose hands were not stained by blood,” he said in a statement to AFP.