Syrian troops launched a fierce assault on a Damascus suburb Thursday, days ahead of a deadline for a UN-brokered cease-fire, with activists describing it as one of the most violent attacks around the capital since the year-old uprising began.
In the suburb of Douma, activists said snipers on 20 buildings were firing at “anything that moved” and residents had endured eight hours of shelling. They said soldiers marched into a main square behind detainees used as human shields. The offensive tapered off by late afternoon, and an activist said five civilians were killed.
A team led by a Norwegian major general arrived in Damascus to negotiate the possible deployment of a UN team that would monitor the cease-fire agreement between Syrian government troops and rebel forces, a spokesman for the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said. Annan brokered the truce, which is supposed to take effect on April 10.
But the operation in Douma, along with other offensives around the country, bolstered the opposition’s claim that President Bashar Assad is only intensifying violence ahead of the deadline to start implementing the truce. Activists say Assad wants to make gains on the ground before the cease-fire is supposed to take effect.
Assad accepted Annan’s cease-fire plan last week, but the violence has continued unabated and tanks, troops, checkpoints and snipers remain in all major flashpoint towns and cities.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he believes Assad “is deceiving us” when he promises to abide by the peace plan, which was brokered by former UN chief Kofi Annan.
“Can we be optimistic? I am not,” Juppe told reporters. He said if all the conditions of the cease-fire plan are not met, including the arrival of 200 observers, then “we must go back to the UN Security Council.”
Annan said “alarming levels” of casualties are still being reported daily in Syria. He told the UN General Assembly in a video conference briefing from Geneva that Syria has informed him of a partial withdrawal from three locations in Daraa, Idlib and Zabadani, though he said more far-reaching action is “urgently needed.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon advised against any premature optimism while speaking at the UN General Assembly Thursday. “Despite the acceptance on the part of the Syrian government for the plan prepared by our special envoy and by the Arab League, containing the opening proposals for resolving the crisis,” he warned, “the violence and attacks on areas inhabited by civilians have not stopped… on the ground, the situation continues to deteriorate.”
Mohammed Fares, an activist in Zabadani, denied claims that troops withdrew and said the army is still in the town with checkpoints backed by tanks.
“Troops and tanks are in Zabadani and around it,” he said by telephone.
Other activists reported attacks on both Daraa and Idlib on Wednesday. Activist groups reported around two dozen dead nationwide on Thursday.
There are other signs as well that the government has no intention of abiding by the deal.
The pro-government daily Al Watan quoted an unnamed official saying the government is not bound by Tuesday’s deadline for a cease-fire because that day marks “the beginning of army units’ withdrawal and not the end. It is not a deadline by itself.”
In Geneva, Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said both sides are expected to end the hostilities within 48 hours of the April 10th deadline.
“The clock starts ticking on the 10th for both sides to cease all forms of violence,” he said.
Annan has asked the Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood to begin discussing with the Syrian authorities “the eventual deployment of this UN supervision and monitoring mission,” Fawzi said.
Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas Thursday with tanks “in one of the most violent campaigns against the area since the uprising started.” He said troops were using detainees as human shields as they marched into one of the suburb’s main squares, a few miles northwest of Damascus.
“Soldiers in the Ghanam Square near the vegetable market were walking behind detainees,” Saeed said via Skype. “They do that so that members of the Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops.”
Another activist near Douma, Omar Hamza, said snipers took up positions on 20 buildings in and around Douma and opened fire at “anything that moved, even animals.”
He said the shelling went on for eight hours, damaging homes and setting shops on fire. Hamza said the government appeared to be trying to put the heavily populated Douma under control before the cease-fire goes into effect for fear that there will be massive anti-government protests near the capital if regime troops withdraw.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported one of the biggest operations of the uprising in Douma, where hundreds of army defectors are believed to be active.
Amateur videos posted by activists showed black smoke billowing from residential areas as heavy cracks of gunfire sounded.
Douma, which has witnessed anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad’s regime over the past year.
The Observatory said troops also clashed with army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, reported intense shelling of the rebel-held town of Rastan in the central province of Homs and the nearby town of Talbiseh and said four people were killed in each area. Videos posted online showed wounded people in Rastan being treated in a local hospital.
The opposition is deeply skeptical that Assad will live up to his commitment to a truce and accuses him of trying to manipulate it to buy more time to continue his military crackdown on the revolt.
The truce is the keystone of a plan put forward by Annan in his role as joint UN-Arab League envoy in an effort to end bloodshed that the UN says has claimed more than 9,000 lives since March 2011.
Annan’s plan requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities, followed by a withdrawal by rebel fighters. Then all sides are supposed to hold talks on a political solution.
Mohammed Abu Nasr, an activist in Hraytan, said the town of about 50,000 was subjected to intense shelling by tanks and helicopters since 5 a.m. local time. He added that a ground offensive began three hours later and hundreds of troops were pushing their way into the town.
“There are wounded people in the streets that we cannot reach because of the shelling,” Abu Nasr said by telephone.
Hraytan is just north of Aleppo, a city that has been relatively quiet since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011. Although the city has been quiet, towns and villages in the province have witnessed in the past anti-government protests as well as defections among the army.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed smoke billowing from several areas in Anadan.
The Observatory later reported that troops were trying to push through Anadan adding that defectors have been so far able to damage three army vehicles and killed and wound soldiers.
As the fighting raged in the north, more Syrians fled to neighboring Turkey where the country’s disaster management agency said more than 1,600 refugees arrived on Wednesday and Thursday. That pushes the total number of Syrians who fled to Turkey to nearly 22,000.