Syria Bloodshed Continues As Truce Nears; Kurds Split From Opposition
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that Syria's conflict is deepening and attacks on civilian areas show no sign of abating, despite assurances from Damascus that it has begun withdrawing troops under an international peace plan.
Residents of at least one area under fire from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad poured scorn on the official assertions that troops were pulling back in several cities before a cease-fire that is supposed to start on Tuesday, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council, meeting in Istanbul, fractured when Kurdish representatives walked out just days after international leaders granted the body extra recognition after attempts to unify, The Daily Star of Beirut reported.
Abdul-Baki Yousef, a leader of the Kurdish Yakiti party in Syria and former member of the Kurdish National Council, charged host country Turkey with “pressuring the SNC” to omit the demands of the Kurdish opposition members in the final constitution document outlining a transition plan for Syria. Turkey has a huge Kurdish minority of its own in regions bordering Syria.
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The fiercely divided SNC pulled the document together at the last minute under pressure to unite from the “Friends of Syria” group.
The Friends group – which includes Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Gulf states – recognized the SNC as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” falling well short of the recognition as the legal government in exile they had hoped for after the first Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis in February.
“Our goal was to unify with the opposition and come up with a patriotic agreement that makes an umbrella for the whole opposition, but unfortunately the Turkish sponsor was very sensitive toward the Kurdish issue,” Yousef told The Daily Star. “We accuse the Turkish government of putting pressure on the council.”
Yousef said in the absence of adequate recognition from the SNC that the Kurdish bloc would continue to negotiate with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and other nationalist entities to secure their demands.
“Of course we are negotiating with the PKK and other Kurdish personnel in the SNC because there is neglect and ignorance toward the Kurdish issues ... This is our land we are part of the Syrian people. We are not refugees here.”
Turkey is engaged in a decades-long military conflict with the PKK, resulting in the deaths of over 40,000 people.
Late last month PKK commanders threatened to transform Kurdish areas into a “war zone” if Turkey followed through on threats to establish militarily protected buffer zones in the country.
International envoy Kofi Annan, whose plan aims to end a year of bloodshed during the uprising against Assad, said that "more far-reaching action is urgently required" to silence the tanks and halt all forms of violence.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Ban gave a pessimistic assessment of the situation in Syria.
"Despite the Syrian government's acceptance of the joint special envoy's plan of initial proposals to resolve the crisis, the violence and assaults in civilian areas have not stopped. The situation on the ground continues to deteriorate," Ban said.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the conflict, which began with peaceful protests although armed rebels later began fighting back. The Syrian government told the world body this week that 6,044 people had died, including 2,566 soldiers and police.
The Security Council agreed Thursday to a statement urging Syria to meet Annan's deadline.
Former Secretary-General Annan, a joint envoy of the U.N. and Arab League, said both the government and opposition must stop fighting at 6 a.m. Syrian time on April 12, if Damascus meets its deadline 48 hours earlier to pull back troops from cities and cease heavy weapons use in populated areas.
"I urge the government and the opposition commanders to issue clear instructions so that the message reaches across the country, down to the fighter and soldier at the local level," Annan told the U.N. General Assembly by video link from Geneva.
"We must silence the tanks, helicopters, mortars, guns and stop all other forms of violence too - sexual abuse, torture, executions, abductions, destruction of homes, forced displacement and other abuses, including on children," he said.
Annan said Damascus had told him troop withdrawals were under way, but he said more needed to be done.
"The government has informed me of partial withdrawals from three locations - Idlib, Zabadani, and Deraa. I await further action and fuller information," he said.
"The government has indicated that it will continue to update me on steps it is taking. But it is clear that more far-reaching action is urgently required."
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, however, hinted at a possible loophole in Annan's peace plan, which does not refer to the withdrawal of police forces. He told reporters the police were not covered by the Tuesday deadline for Syrian troop pullbacks because "the deployment of the police is to protect the civilians."
Opposition activists say the army and police have been responsible for killing civilians in the government's yearlong attempt to stamp out pro-democracy demonstrations.
One Zabadani resident said no significant withdrawal was under way. "They are complete liars, there is no army withdrawal, they are still in the middle of the city. They fired on the city this morning, like they do every day," a man calling himself Abu Mustafa said by telephone from Zabadani near the Lebanon border.
"The army withdrew 15 tanks yesterday, but the rest are all around the checkpoints as usual," Abu Mustafa said.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 33 people, including 14 soldiers, were killed Thursday, 16 of them in the city of Homs and 14 in Idlib province.
Video taken by activists just outside Aleppo, Syria's second city, showed five tanks and armored personnel carriers firing heavy machine guns as they advanced through a village.
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