At least 27 people killed as fighting continues in Syria

Western nations and their Arab allies say they have seen little sign of restraint from Syrian forces since President Bashar Al Assad promised the UN-Arab League special envoy, Kofi Annan, he would begin a ceasefire on Tuesday.

United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan (C) leaves with his staff on April 4, 2012 the United Nations offices in Geneva. Fierce clashes erupted after Syria's regime sent reinforcements into rebel areas despite a truce pledge, as the UN said it was rushing a team to Damascus to pave the way for peace monitors. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI *** Local Caption *** 238364-01-08.jpg
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UNITED NATIONS // At least 27 people were killed in fighting in Syria yesterday as UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan warned violence was jeopardising a United Nations Security Council plan for the guns to fall silent within days.

Western nations and their Arab allies say they have seen little sign of restraint from Syrian forces since President Bashar Al Assad promised the UN-Arab League special envoy, Kofi Annan, he would begin a ceasefire on Tuesday. The rebels are supposed to cease fire within 48 hours of then.

Amnesty International says it has recorded 232 deaths since Mr Al Assad agreed to the plan last month.

More than 9,000 have died in the year-long uprising against Mr Al Assad.

Mr Annan told the UN General Assembly by video-link from Geneva that with the ceasefire deadline just four days away, neither side has abandoned violence in their deadly struggle for power.

"Clearly the violence is still continuing at alarming levels daily," Mr Annan, the former UN secretary-general, said. "Military operations have not stopped."

Mr Annan said the Syrian government had written to him saying armed groups were still attacking the state. But the government said it has issued orders to its forces not to deploy to additional towns and cities.

And some troops had already begun withdrawing from Idlib, Zabadan and Deraa ahead of all troops withdrawing from populated areas by the Tuesday deadline, the letter said.

"I await further information on this ... but it is clear that more urgent action is needed," Mr Annan said.

"In the end this is not merely a technical issue," he added. "These steps must be implemented in a way that sends a powerful signal of peace."

Clashes took place yesterday in the central cities of Homs and Hama, the northern governorate of Idlib and the Damascus suburb of Douma,

Among the 27 killed were three children, the Local Coordination Committees, a rebel group said. "We are not aware of any signs of military withdrawal till this moment," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "The shelling and violence is as normal."

Moments before Mr Annan spoke, the Security Council adopted a formal statement supporting Mr Annan's six-point plan: a ceasefire by Tuesday, political dialogue, a daily two-hour pause in fighting for humanitarian aid ahead of the ceasefire, release of political prisoners, access for journalists and tolerance of peaceful demonstrations.

The Security Council called on Damascus to "implement urgently and visibly its commitments, as it agreed to".

The council statement spelt this out in no uncertain terms, telling the government it must "cease troop movements towards population

centres, cease all use of heavy weapons in such centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres".

All this must be completed within four days, the council said.

According to the plan, the opposition must lay down its arms within 48 hours after Tuesday, if the government has indeed pulled back all its troops and ended offensive action. The council's statement called on the opposition to "engage" with Mr Annan on its end of the deal to stop fighting.

But with millions of dollars pledged in Istanbul on Sunday by the 83-nation Friends of Syria - intended to pay salaries and possibly buy weapons

for an armed opposition committed to overthrowing Mr Al Assad - it remained unclear if the rebels would have any incentive to stop fighting, even if the government were to withdraw all its troops.

Russia and China, which vetoed two Security Council resolutions calling for Mr Al Assad to step aside, agreed to the council statement supporting Mr Annan's plan. Critics said it simply gives Mr Assad more time to organise his forces and should, as did an Arab League peace plan he also agree to, call on him to step aside.

But Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, on Wednesday accused the Friends of Syria - a group of nations and organisations - of undermining the special envoy's peace intiative.

"Everyone has supported Kofi Annan's plan but decisions at the 'Friends of Syria' group meeting aimed at arming the opposition and at new sanctions undermine peace efforts," Mr Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

"It is clear as day that even if the opposition is armed to the teeth, it will not defeat the Syrian army, and there will simply be slaughter and mutual destruction for long, long years," Mr. Lavrov said during a visit to Azerbaijan, according to the Interfax news agency.

Mr Annan said Syrian authorities had appointed a mediator to engage with the opposition in a political dialogue if the violence stops. "The cessation of violence is an important beginning," he said.

"But we need to move forward ... on a comprehensive political dialogue between the government and whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition."

It is also unclear how the government would respond to massive peaceful demonstrations in towns and cities that they are supposed to withdraw from.

If the violence ends, the UN is preparing to deploy around 250 unarmed monitors to police the ceasefire. Mr Annan said the monitors would have to act creatively to ensure the violence has stopped since there are no front lines and they could not be deployed between opposing forces in the traditional manner.

A UN team led by Norwegian General Robert Mood is in Damascus hammering out the details of such a monitoring mission, whose members would be drawn from UN peacekeeping operations in the region in an effort to have them rapidly deployed.