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Syria situation 'bleak', says Annan

International envoy Kofi Annan has told the United Nations Security Council that the situation in Syria is "bleak" and expressed alarm at reports that government troops are still carrying out military operations in towns where UN observers are not present.

He expressed particular concern at media reports that government troops entered the central city of Hama on Monday after UN observers departed, firing automatic weapons and killing a significant number of people. Activists said more than 30 people were killed. "If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," Mr Annan said.

He echoed UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who called the current situation "unacceptable" and urged president Bashar Assad's government to immediately implement his six-point peace plan, which would culminate with Syrian-led talks between the government and opposition aimed at reaching a peace settlement.

The joint UN-Arab League envoy said the speedy deployment of the 300-strong UN observer force authorised by the council on Saturday was "crucial" to verify what was happening on the ground and potentially "change the political dynamics".

The observer force would also provide the international community with "incontrovertible" information to increase pressure for a ceasefire by the government and opposition, he said.

Mr Annan briefed the security council by video conference hours after his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told UN Television in Geneva that satellite imagery and other credible reports showed that, despite its claims, Syria had failed to withdraw all of its heavy weapons from populated areas as required by the ceasefire deal it accepted. Mr Fawzi also cited credible reports that "people who approach the observers may be approached by security forces or Syrian army and harassed or arrested or even worse, perhaps killed".

Mr Annan did not mention either the satellite photos or the harassment and possible killing of people who talked to the observers in the text of his closed briefing, which was obtained by the Associated Press, but he stressed that "the government cannot cease action in one area to resume it in another".

He told the council the Syrian foreign minister had informed him in a letter on April 21 of the withdrawal of troops and heavy equipment from populated areas and the handover of responsibility to police for maintaining law and order. He said he replied that this means troops should be back in barracks and weapons placed in storage "rather than operationally deployed" and that civilians should not be endangered by police actions.

Mr Annan said the minister's letter was "encouraging" and would make "a real difference ... if it is scrupulously applied". But he added pointedly: "It should be understood that the only promises that count are the promises that were kept."

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, whose country is Syria's most important ally, noted that some council members said "they have information" that Syria had not withdrawn its troops and heavy weapons. "If this is the case, if the promise in the letter has not really been carried out, that would mean it is a breach of the promise they have made on Saturday," he told reporters. "I'm certainly going to bring it to the attention of Moscow that there is an issue that needs to be looked at."

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