Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Syria Maintain Right of Defense Against Armed Rebels; G8 Focuses on Damascus, Iran in Maryland

Syria agrees to heed cease-fire deadline, but will counter attacks

By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) -- Despite fresh violence and global skepticism, the Syrian government said Wednesday it will abide by the terms of a United Nations-backed peace plan and meet a looming deadline to halt all military action.

However, statements from Damascus said the government maintains the right to respond to opposition attacks.

Under the plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan, Syrian forces must silence their guns as of 6 a.m. Thursday.

But Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, told CNN it will take more than Syrian forces to stop the violence. He said the presence of U.N. observers on the ground will be essential to verify the cessation of violence.

"We are not afraid of the reality of the Syrian story," he said. "We want them to be on the ground and see for themselves who is violating this.

"We are fully committed to have a successful mission for Mr. Annan, but at the same time people should know that I can say optimistically that 40% of the keys to solve the crisis is in our hands as government, but the other 60% is in the hands of those who are harboring, channeling weapons, instigating in the media against Syria," he said.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offered a different assessment Wednesday.

"The burden remains squarely on the Syrian regime and not the opposition, in the first instance, to meet its obligations in full and visibly under the Annan plan," she said.

President Bashar al-Assad has insisted throughout the Syrian crisis that armed terrorist groups have been responsible for fomenting violence within the country.

Opposition groups, however, cite deaths daily at the hands of al-Assad's forces. Wednesday was no different.

Grim images and activist reports showed government forces attacking civilians in several cities and towns across Syria. The death toll rose as the day wore on. At least 98 people were killed Wednesday, said the Local Coordination Committees, or LCC, an opposition network across Syria.

Annan remained optimistic that the Thursday cease-fire would hold, though many remain skeptical of al-Assad's intentions, especially after a surge in bloodshed that has occurred since he agreed to a timetable for peace.

A fighter from the Free Syrian Army, composed mainly of defected members of the military, said the rebels will hold their fire, if al-Assad does. But that was impossible, the fighter said.

"Bashar al-Assad cannot withdraw tanks from the cities and towns, because if he does, the whole country will come out and protest against him and he won't tolerate that," said the fighter, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

Earlier, Annan was in Iran to muster support for what had seemed like a faltering peace plan and said, "We should see a much improved situation on the ground."

Annan received a letter from the Syrian Foreign Ministry with assurances from the government that it would adhere to the cease-fire, but it was also conditional.

The ministry informed him that it reserved "the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property," according to a statement from Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.

Opposition activists have called on the international community to arm Syrian rebels, who are clearly outmatched in strength by government forces.

"The solution is to arm the Free Syrian Army with high-quality weapons," Homs resident Saif al-Arab said about the rebel fighting force, made up mainly of military defectors.

"They are still using Kalashnikovs and light rocket-propelled grenades against the regime's military tanks," he told CNN.

Annan, however, warned against militarization, insisting that the issue has to be resolved through diplomatic channels and calling on governments in the region and beyond to work with Syrians.

"Any militarization of the Syrian issue will be disastrous," Annan said at a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

Salehi said Iran supported Annan as long as his mission did not endorse the idea of regime change in Damascus, Iran's state-run Press TV reported. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned regional governments not to supply weapons to opposition groups in other countries, alluding to the situation in Syria, the semi-official FARS news agency reported.

"If you send your money to pay for weapons and supply guns and disturb (the security of) other states, you should know that some day the arrogant powers may do the same to you," he said, according to FARS.

Syria's anti-government protests erupted in March 2011, followed by the bloody government crackdown.

The United Nations estimates at least 9,000 people have died in Syria since the protests began. The LCC puts the death toll at more than 11,000.

CNN cannot independently verify reports of violence and deaths as the government has severely restricted access by international media.

Al-Arab, the Homs resident, said military planes were over his besieged city Wednesday. The LCC as well as the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Avaaz reported a heavy bombardment of Homs.

The military was also out in force in other Syrian cities and towns, activists said.

Shells rained down in Hama and government soldiers were destroying homes, according to the LCC.

Manhal Abo Baker, part of the Shaam News activist network in Hama, said his organization had filmed a series of campaigns in the besieged city.

"The videos we film make us feel sad, as nothing as changed," he said.

Tanks remained on the streets, planes were flying overhead and snipers were on rooftops, he said.

"The Annan plan will not succeed, because I do not think Assad's forces will carry out the cease-fire," al-Arab told CNN, echoing similar sentiments from other Syrians angry about what they perceive as the regime's empty promises in the peace process.

Annan himself expressed grave concerns about the situation in Syria in a letter to the U.N. Security Council after al-Assad defied a Tuesday deadline for government soldiers to withdraw from population centers.

The Syrian government said it took steps to pull back its forces, but Annan countered that while troops had moved out of some areas, they had relocated into others that were previously not targeted.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he would bring up the gravity of the situation in Syria with his counterparts at a meeting of the G8 economies that began Wednesday. Al-Assad has plainly lied to Annan, Juppe said, arguing that "what is presented as a withdrawal is in fact a thinly disguised redeployment."

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday "shared the concern that the Assad government was not complying with the terms of the agreement negotiated by Kofi Annan and continued to engage in unacceptable brutality against its own people," the White House said in a statement describing a phone call between the two leaders.

"They agreed that this underscored the need for the U.N. Security Council to come together to take more resolute action," the statement said.

In Homs, which has borne the brunt of the regime's aggression, the LCC reported another grim discovery: a grave with 37 bodies. They were believed to have been killed the day before.

Among them were two entire families, with women and children.

CNN's Hala Gorani, Ivan Watson, Richard Roth, Jack Maddox, Amir Ahmed and Moni Basu contributed to this report.

G-8 ministers focus on Iran, Syria, North Korea

Posted: Apr 11, 2012 3:42 PM EDT
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The crisis in Syria along with growing concerns about Iran's nuclear program and a potential North Korean missile test dominated discussions Wednesday between foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized democracies.

"The events of this past year, even of just this past week affirm the continued need for comprehensive international cooperation and the G-8 is an essential forum for that," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said as she opened the talks to prepare for next month's summit of G-8 leaders at Camp David in Maryland.

Clinton's meeting with the foreign ministers will end Thursday with the release of a joint statement.

Clinton said the G-8, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States, is "alarmed" at violence in Syria that has continued despite efforts by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to arrange a cease-fire. She said the ministers were concerned about the difficulties Annan is facing and would look for ways that they could cooperate to help him and "try to bring about a peaceful resolution of the current situation and a political transition for the sake of the Syrian people."

Separately, President Barack Obama discussed the Syrian crisis by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, with both voicing concern that President Bashar Assad's government was not complying with the cease-fire terms, the White House said.

In a statement, the White House said Obama and Merkel agreed that the continued crackdown on dissent by the Syrian government "underscored the need for the U.N. Security Council to come together to take more resolute action."

The G-8 officials were to hear from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu via videoconference. Turkey has been at the forefront of exploring ways to end the violence in Syria.

On Iran, Clinton said it was "urgent" for the Islamic republic to use upcoming talks with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany to show it is serious about addressing concerns over its nuclear program. Those talks are to be held on Saturday in Istanbul.

Moreover, the White House said that in Obama's phone call with Merkel, the two leaders said they would press for more sanctions and other measures against Iran's regime if it did not take advantage of Saturday's talks.

The U.S. and its allies, including Israel, accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no interest in an atomic bomb and insists its program is aimed at producing energy.

"These talks are an opportunity for Iran to address seriously the international community's concerns about its nuclear program," Clinton said. "We believe there is still time for diplomacy, but it is urgent that the Iranians come to the table to establish an environment conducive to achieving concrete results through a sustained process."

Clinton also noted that North Korea is preparing to launch a satellite over the East China Sea in what almost all countries except for the North say would be a blatant violation of Security Council resolutions barring ballistic missile tests. The North says its satellite launch is not proscribed.

"I think we all share a strong interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula, and we will be discussing how best to achieve that as well," Clinton told her colleagues.

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