BEIRUT (AP) – Fresh clashes between Syrian soldiers and rebels erupted across many parts of Syria Friday as U.N. envoy Kofi Annan urged the government to lay down its weapons first to immediately end the nation’s yearlong crisis.
Syrian President Bashar Assad accepted a peace plan brokered by Annan earlier this week, but the bloodshed has persisted despite calls for a cease-fire. The opposition is deeply skeptical Assad will carry out Annan’s peace plan, saying the president has accepted it just to win time while his forces continue their bloody campaign to crush the uprising.
“The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side,” Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva. “We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith. … The deadline is now.”
On Friday, activists reported clashes in the suburbs of Damascus, in the northern Idlib province, the restive central province of Homs and in eastern Syria. The Local Coordination Committees said 15 people were killed across the country, including eight who died in the town of Quriya in the eastern Deir el-Zour province. There, security forces opened fire to disperse anti-government protesters, triggering a shootout and fierce clashes with local rebels in the area.
The LCC and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported intense clashes between government forces and defectors in the suburbs of Damascus, between the towns of Zamalka and Arbeen.
In Damascus, troops opened fire on protesters in the Kafar Souseh district, killing at least one.
Thousands of Syrians across the country held demonstrations calling for Assad’s ouster as they emerged from mosques following Friday prayers, many protesting resolutions adopted by Arab leaders at a summit meeting in Baghdad on Thursday. The leaders called for talks between the government and the opposition _ not for Assad to step down, which is the key opposition demand.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, was in Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdullah in an effort to develop a strategy on the Syria crisis.
The visit comes ahead of a 60-nation gathering of the so-called “Friends of the Syrian People” in Istanbul over the weekend aimed at finding ways to aid Syria’s fractured opposition. The U.S. is seeking to unify Syria’s opposition movement and find ways to further isolate Assad’s regime.
Annan’s plan calls for an immediate, two-hour halt in fighting every day to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations. The plan also outlines a complete cease-fire, but that will take more time because Syria must first move troops and equipment out of cities and towns, government forces and the divided opposition must stop fighting, and a U.N.-supervised monitoring mission must be established.
The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
In comments carried on Syria’s state news agency on Thursday, Assad said “Syria will spare no effort to make (Annan’s) mission a success and hopes it would return security and stability to the country.”
But he added that the U.N. envoy must “deal with the elements of the crisis in a comprehensive way” and get a commitment from armed groups to cease their “terrorist acts” against the government. Throughout the crisis, Assad’s regime has held that it faces not a popular uprising against his rule but a campaign of violence by terrorists.
Syria’s uprising began a year ago with peaceful anti-Assad protests, which were met with a fierce crackdown by security forces. Since then, army defectors and protesters have taken up weapons, saying their only hope is to drive out Assad through force of arms. Annan’s spokesman told The Associated Press on Thursday that the international envoy is looking at the possibility of borrowing U.N. peacekeeping troops to monitor a cease-fire.
On Friday, China backed Assad’s demands that Syrian rebels had to commit to talks and stop attacks.
China, which along with Russia has twice vetoed proposed U.N. sanctions over Assad’s crackdown, has said it backs Annan’s peace plan, but also says there should be no external interference in Syria.
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.