BEIRUT — Syrian troops began pulling out Tuesday from some calm cities and headed back to their bases a week ahead of a deadline to implement an international cease-fire plan, a government official said.
The claim could not immediately be verified and activists near the capital Damascus denied troops were leaving their area. They said the day regime forces withdraw from streets, Syria will witness massive protests that will overthrow the government.
"Forces began withdrawing to outside calm cities and are returning to their bases, while in tense areas, they are pulling out to the outskirts," the government official told The Associated Press in Damascus without saying when the withdrawal began. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
President Bashar Assad agreed just days ago to an April 10 deadline to implement international envoy Kofi Annan's truce plan. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities and observe a cease-fire. Rebel fighters are to immediately follow by ceasing violence.
Khaled al-Omar, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, denied that any withdrawal was under way in his area.
"This is impossible. I can see a checkpoint from my window," he said via Skype, adding the regime forces were still in the main square.
Earlier in the day, opposition activists charged that the regime was racing to crush opponents ahead of the cease-fire deadline by carrying out intense raids, arrests and shelling on Tuesday.
Opposition activists have blasted Annan's plan as too little, too late and are particularly angry that it does not call for Assad to leave power – the central demand of the uprising. They suspect Assad will manipulate the plan and use it to stall for time while his forces continue to crack down.
"He thinks he can win more time to take control of all Syrian cities," activist Adel al-Omari said by phone from the southern town of Dael, where regime forces have been torching activists' homes since they raided on Monday. "This won't happen, because as soon as he withdraws his tanks from the cities, the people will come out and push to topple the regime."
Western leaders have cautiously accepted the April 10 deadline while pointing out that Assad has broken previous promises and insisting the regime must be judged by its actions.
Also Tuesday, Amnesty International said people are still being arrested across Syria, including 13 students who were beaten at their school in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
The organization said it received the names of 232 individuals, including 17 children, who were reported to have been killed since Syria agreed to the plan on March 27.
"The evidence shows that Assad's supposed agreement to the Annan plan is having no impact on the ground," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
She said the government must released thousands of prisoners, stop arrests and halt violence "Otherwise, the only conclusion we can draw is that Syria has made empty promises once more," Nossel said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Syria had informed its close ally Moscow that it has started implementing the plan. The ministry's statement did not say which troops – if any – had been withdrawn or provide further details. It called on rebel forces to follow suit.
The Syrian government has not commented publicly on the April 10 deadline. It has accepted other peace plans in recent months only to ignore them on the ground. An Arab League effort that included sending in monitors to promote a cease-fire collapsed in violence in November.
It also remains unclear whether rebel forces fighting government troops under the banner of the Free Syrian Army would respect a cease-fire. Dozens of local militias in different parts of the country have only loose links to each other and to their official leadership in Turkey.
One activist in the central Homs region said Tuesday that the area's biggest rebel group, the Farouq Brigade, would cease its attacks on government targets if the government stopped shelling towns and cities.
"They will continue to resist until they see that there is a positive step from the regime," Mahmoud Orabi said via Skype from the town of Qusair. "If the regime withdraws and carries out the plan, the Free Army will respect it, too."
Activists said Syrian forces shelled rebellious neighborhoods in the central city of Homs and the nearby towns Qusair and Rastan Tuesday and carried out raid and arrest campaigns elsewhere.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least two civilians were killed in clashes between rebels and government forces that stormed the town of Taftanaz and torched a number of homes.
Gunmen in the northern city of Aleppo attacked the home of the head of military institutions late Monday and killed two guards, the groups said.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said at least 13 people were killed nationwide, six of them in Homs province and 5 in the raid of Taftanaz.
The activists' claims could not be independently verified. The Syrian government rarely comment on specific incidents and has barred most media from working in the country.
Relentless government shelling of rebellious areas and frequent clashes with rebels have taken a high toll on Syria's civilians, and the International Committee of the Red Cross pressed Syria on Tuesday to give aid workers access to embattled areas.
ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger met with officials from Syria's foreign, interior and health ministries, as well as the head of the local Red Cross branch. He said before his visit that he would appeal for greater access to the sick, wounded and displaced and press for a two-hour daily halt to the fighting to allow aid in.
Aji reported from Damascus.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|