Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Syria's new demands could scuttle truce plan

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — A U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria appeared close to collapse Sunday as authorities demanded a written guarantee that rebels would lay down their arms before the government would withdraw troops from cities and towns.

The statement cast serious doubt on hopes that the peace plan — the only initiative backed by Syrian allies China, Russia and Iran as well as the United Nations, the Arab League and Syria — could quell the violence stemming from a government crackdown on a yearlong uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad.

Kofi Annan, the joint U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, issued a statement Sunday in Geneva, saying he was shocked by "a surge in violence and atrocities" that violated assurances given to him by Syrian officials. Annan had said that the withdrawal of troops from cities was due to be completed by Tuesday, and that there would be a cessation of hostilities by all sides 48 hours later.

Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said U.N. reports that Syrian officials had said their forces would pull back from cities by the Tuesday deadline resulted from a misunderstanding. He instead presented conditions that were not part of the six-point peace plan hashed out last month by Annan.

Makdissi called for written guarantees from armed groups that they would lay down their weapons in exchange for government forces' withdrawal from cities, and he demanded that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey withdraw their support for armed opposition, according to Syrian state media.

Col. Malik Kurdi, an assistant commander of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, dismissed the government's new demand. "We do not refuse to give guarantees, but this regime is still shelling and bombarding Syrian cities as well as committing massacres," he said by telephone from Turkey.

The statements from both sides came after two days of particularly heavy violence in the country, in which activists say 100 to 200 people were killed, including dozens of soldiers. On Sunday, 21 civilians, 12 soldiers and five armed opponents of the government were killed, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reports are difficult to verify because Syria restricts journalists' access to the country.

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