Fierce clashes between Syrian forces and rebels erupted near Damascus yesterday, monitors said, as Washington slammed an “intensification” of violence against regime opponents ahead of an agreed truce.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops backed by tanks stormed Douma, located 13km northeast of the capital, at dawn amid heavy gunfire and shelling.
The Britain-based group said clashes between soldiers and rebel forces were reported in various parts of the town.
Plumes of smoke could be seen rising near Douma’s main mosque as troop reinforcements were sent in, the Observatory said.
Violence across the country has left at least 170 people dead so far this week despite a pledge by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to implement by Tuesday a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
The surge in violence has sent Syrians fleeing, with an official in Ankara saying yesterday that more than 1,000 people had crossed the border in the past 24 hours, bringing to nearly 21,000 the number of Syrian refugees now in Turkey.
“A total of 1,043 Syrians made their way to Turkey in a single day, marking the highest figure in recent times,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Former UN chief Annan said on Monday that Assad had agreed to start “immediately” pulling out troops as per the terms of the peace plan.
However, US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that “we’ve yet to be convinced that they [Syria’s authorities] have any intention of complying with the April 10 deadline.”
“What we’ve seen, frankly, is an intensification of artillery bombardments in major population centers like Homs and Idlib,” Toner said.
Annan was to address the UN General Assembly yesterday about the crackdown.
UN General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser convened an informal meeting for 10am for Annan to provide via video conference an update on the situation and the “progress of his mission.”
The Observatory has charged that the army is torching and looting rebel houses across the country in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity.
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition bloc, accused the regime of carrying out “a policy of genocide against the Syrian people” and called for immediate pressure from the international community for a pullback of tanks.
With international concern growing, a draft UN Security Council statement was drawn up asking Syria to respect the Tuesday deadline, according to a copy seen by reporters.
The draft also urges the Syrian opposition to cease hostilities within 48 hours after Assad’s regime makes good on its pledges.
It calls on all parties to respect a two-hour daily humanitarian pause, as called for in Annan’s plan.
Negotiations on the text — distributed by Britain, France and the US — began on Tuesday.
Russia, Assad’s veto-wielding ally in the council, has rejected the idea of a deadline, with Lavrov saying “ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters.”
Seeking to assuage humanitarian concerns, Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem pledged Damascus would do its utmost to ensure the success of a Red Cross mission at a meeting on Tuesday with visiting ICRC chief Jakob Kellenberger.
Kellenberger, who is pushing for a daily ceasefire, travelled on Wednesday to Daraa to assess the humanitarian needs there, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.