Syria peace plan in jeopardy over regime demands

A peace plan for Syria was in jeopardy Monday after a rebel commander rejected fresh conditions from the government for a pullout of regime troops from protest hubs amid a new spike in violence.

Under a peace deal brokered by Kofi Annan, the former UN chief, the Syrian army was scheduled to withdraw from protest cities on Tuesday, with a complete end to fighting set for 48 hours later.

But the Damascus regime has since said it would only carry out its side of the bargain if rebels first handed over written guarantees to stop fighting, a demand rejected by rebel army chief Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad.

"We are committed to the Annan plan," the colonel who heads the Free Syrian Army, made up mostly of deserters from the Syrian military, told AFP in Beirut.

"We will present our guarantees and our commitments to the international community, but not to this (Syrian) regime."

The regime demand came as a weekend escalation in violence claimed almost 180 lives, most of them civilians, a surge in bloodshed that Annan described as "unacceptable."

Monitors said 51 people were killed on Sunday, a day after nearly 130 died across Syria, while 200 others were arrested in raids by government forces pushing to crush dissent.

In a statement in Geneva, Annan urged the government in Damascus to respect its commitments on troop withdrawals.

"I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable."

"This is a time when we must all urgently work towards a full cessation of hostilities, providing the space for humanitarian access and creating the conditions for a political process," Annan said.

Earlier, the Syrian foreign ministry outlined the new conditions in a statement.

"To say that Syria will pull back its forces from towns on April 10 is inaccurate, Kofi Annan having not yet presented written guarantees on the acceptance by armed terrorist groups of a halt to all violence," the statement said.

It said that the regime was also awaiting written guarantees from the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey "on stopping their funding to terrorist groups," referring to the regime's key regional critics.

"Syria is not going to repeat what happened in the presence of Arab observers when armed forces left towns," the foreign ministry said, referring to a failed Arab monitoring mission at the turn of the year.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council formally endorsed the Tuesday deadline for a ceasefire, but Damascus said a day later that the number of "terrorist acts" has risen since the deal was agreed with Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy.

Annan "said he would work to stop the violence, disarm armed groups... initiate a comprehensive national dialogue with opposition movements," when he met President Bashar al-Assad last month, the ministry said.

"It is this principle on which Syria accepted Annan's mission and his six-point plan."

France denounced as "unacceptable" the fresh Syrian demands in a strongly worded foreign ministry statement.

It also condemned what it called the "continuing massacres" and renewed French support for Annan.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem is scheduled to travel to ally Moscow on Monday.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011, while monitors put the number at more than 10,000.

The main umbrella opposition group the Syrian National Council called for UN intervention after monitoring groups said 86 of nearly 130 people killed on Saturday were civilians.

"We urge the UN Security Council to intervene urgently to stop the humanitarian crisis caused by the regime ... by adopting a resolution under Chapter 7 to ensure the protection of civilians," the SNC said.

Another 26 civilians, 17 soldiers and eight deserters were killed across the country on Sunday, monitors said.

Belgium's Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said a humanitarian intervention under the protection of military forces could be the next stage if the Annan plan is not respected.

Meanwhile the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that deserters shot down a military helicopter in the northwestern Idlib province, where fighting raged between rebels and army troops, quoting "several sources."

Pope Benedict XVI called in an Easter Day message for an end to the killings in Syria and a commitment to dialogue, as part of a wider appeal to give hope to the entire Middle East.

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