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Syria peace deal collapses after last-minute demand

A UN-brokered peace deal for Syria seems to have collapsed as the government made a new demand that its opponents provide “written guarantees” to lay down their weapons before regime forces withdraw from cities, a call swiftly rejected by the country's main rebel group.

The deal, brokered by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, was due to take effect tomorrow, paving the way for negotiations to end the country's year-old crisis, which the UN estimates has killed 9,000 people.

Mr Annan said last week that Syrian president Bashar Assad had accepted the plan and its call for government forces to pull back from urban centres.

Yesterday Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, placed a new condition — that the opposition agree in writing “to halt violence with all its forms and their readiness to lay down weapons”.

The commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, said his group was prepared to abide by the Annan agreement, but rejected the government's new unilateral demand.

The FSA does not recognise the regime “and for that reason we will not give guarantees,” he said, adding the government should withdraw its forces to bases and remove checkpoints from streets.

Mr Annan's deal calls for government forces to withdraw from population centres on Tuesday, to be followed by a full ceasefire by both sides by 6am on Thursday.

However, in recent days, Syrian forces have stepped up shelling attacks on restive towns, and activists say scores of civilians have been killed daily.

Mr Annan said in a statement yesterday that “the present escalation of violence is unacceptable”.

He also reminded the government “of the need for full implementation of its commitments,” though it was unclear whether his statement was issued before or after Damascus imposed new conditions for complying with the truce.

The ceasefire was meant to pave the way for negotiations between the government and the opposition to end the country's year-old crisis.

Street protests against Assad erupted 13 months ago, inspired by the Arab Spring's pro-democracy uprisings in the region, but the revolt has turned violent in the face of a brutal regime crackdown.

The Syrian opposition and Western leaders have expressed scepticism about Assad's intentions since the deal was first agreed because of broken promises in the past and the recent escalation in attacks on opposition strongholds.

Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said he is not surprised by the latest government stance because “whenever the regime pulls out its troops and tanks, people will march to Damascus and topple the regime. Frankly speaking, the regime will collapse if checkpoints are removed”.

On Thursday, a UN statement raised the possibility of “further steps” if Syria does not implement the six-point peace plan outlined by Mr Annan, which Assad agreed to on March 25. The statement called on all parties, including the opposition, to stop armed violence in all forms in 48 hours after the Syrian government fully fulfills the measures.

With the deadline looming, Syrian troops pounded restive regions in the north and centre of the country a day after activists said more than 100 people were killed across Syria on Saturday alone.

Belfast Telegraph


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