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Syria troops kill 20 despite peace deal

Damascus also agreed to release people arrested since the anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March and to engage in a national dialogue with the opposition. - AFP photo

DAMASCUS: Syrian troops killed 20 civilians and arrested dozens on Thursday, a rights watchdog said, a day after Damascus pledged to withdraw its forces from protest hubs under a deal with the Arab League to end months of bloodshed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the victims fell in various neighbourhoods of the flashpoint protest city of Homs, in central Syria, where government forces reportedly used heavy tank-mounted machineguns.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton joined world leaders in welcoming the Arab deal and urging Syria to comply quickly with the terms.

But activists remained sceptical and called for mass demonstrations on Friday to test the government's commitment to the peace dead while the largest opposition group met Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi to voice its concerns.

“We told the secretary general of our fears that the regime will not keep its promises,” Samir al-Nashar, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said in Cairo.

Arabi briefed them on the peace plan, which also calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to engage in a national dialogue with his opponents, said Nashar, adding that the SNC does not want talks but for Assad to quit.

“We are not talking about a dialogue. We offered to engage in negotiations to move from a authoritarian regime to a democratic regime. And we ask that Bashar al-Assad resign.”The SNC is the largest and most representative Syrian opposition grouping.

On Wednesday it urged the Arab League to freeze Syria's membership in the

22-strong organisation and recognise it as the sole representative of the

opposition.

Assad's opponents are sceptical about the regime's readiness to rein in a brutal crackdown that the United Nations says has cost more than 3,000 lives since mid-March.

London and Washington said that despite Damascus's agreement to the Arab League plan after weeks of prevarication, they still believed Assad must heed the demands of anti-government protesters and step down.

Hours after Syria agreed to the Arab plan its security forces pressed on with the crackdown.

Twenty people were killed in several flashpoint neighbourhoods of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after an earlier toll spoke of nine dead.

Gunfire continued to explode across the city, which was pounded during the day with heavy machineguns mounted on tanks, according to activists.

Security forces also arrested “more than 80 people at dawn in Deir Ezzor (eastern Syria) and neighbouring districts,” the statement added.

Under the hard-won deal announced at Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Wednesday, the Syrian government pledged to remove troops from all protest centres although no timetable is given.

Damascus also agreed to release people arrested since the anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March and to engage in a national dialogue with the opposition.

But the text, seen by AFP, did not specify a venue for the dialogue. That is a bone of contention between the government, which insists on Damascus, and the opposition, which says it should be outside Syria.

An Arab diplomat in Cairo said the ministerial task force is expected to visit Syria soon to follow up on the implementation of the agreement

But scepticism prevailed among regime opponents.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which organises anti-regime protests, cast doubt over “the integrity of the Syrian regime's acceptance of the points suggested by the Arab League's initiative” and called for protests.

Syrians should stage “peaceful protests” to “validate whether armed forces... have been withdrawn from the cities and towns, and whether violence has been stopped, detainees have been released, Arab and international media correspondents have been allowed in the country and if a dialogue has been made possible,” a statement said.

“May tomorrow, Friday, be the day where all streets and squares become platforms for demonstrations and for the peaceful struggle towards achieving the downfall of the regime.”The Arab League plan won international endorsement.

The EU's Ashton said Damascus must “fully and rapidly” implement the deal and “reforms that the Syrian people have bravely demanded these last seven months.”UN chief Ban Ki-moon said it was vital that Assad's regime now swiftly implement the terms of the roadmap “as soon as possible as agreed.”The United States and Britain echoed his comments but agreed that the only real way to end the bloodshed is for Assad to step down because, as the White House said, he “lost his legitimacy to rule.”Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, who led the Arab League's mediation efforts, said “if Syria does not respect its commitments, the ministerial committee will meet again and take the necessary decisions.”


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