Syria has launched a blistering assault on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a UN-brokered ceasefire.
The bloodshed on Thursday undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan’s deadline to pull the army back from population centers by Tuesday next week.
According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end al-Assad’s violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The UN says more than 9,000 people have died.
“Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan’s plan on March 27. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday’s assault in Douma as among the worst around the capital since the uprising began.
“Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating,” Ban told the UN General Assembly. “The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically.”
He said the violence has not stopped and the situation on the ground “continues to deteriorate.”
Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma, about 12km outside Damascus, amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by al-Assad’s regime over the past year.
Activists said soldiers occupied Douma’s Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.
“No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers,” Syrian activist Omar Hamza told reporters by telephone. “They are like stray dogs attacking sheep.”
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 suburb under control before the ceasefire goes into effect for fear that there will be massive anti-government demonstrations near the capital if regime troops withdraw.
Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas on 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.
“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 [rebel] Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said troops clashed with army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.
Observers have expressed deep skepticism that al-Assad will abide by the peace plan, in part because large swaths of the country could slip out of his control if he pulls back the troops.