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Violence drops in Syria, but cease-fire success far from certain

BEIRUT — A U.N.-sponsored plan to end the violence in Syria got off to a rocky start Tuesday, with Syria's foreign minister claiming that soldiers had begun to pull out of urban areas while anti-government activists charged that military operations were continuing throughout the country.

Tuesday's death toll appeared to be substantially lower than Monday's, but U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan expressed disappointment that the Syrian government had not pulled troops from urban areas as promised. He said intelligence he'd been given showed that government forces were moving toward "other areas which have not previously been targets."

But he also said it was "too early" to declare the cease-fire plan a failure and said he hoped that his peace plan would be implemented by Thursday, when both government forces and rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad are to have stopped their attacks.

"We still have time between now and (April) 12 to stop the violence, and I appeal to all concerned, the government in the first place, and the opposition forces," he said. "It's time the violence stops, to stop the guns, and it's time the military went back to the barracks."

Security forces were continuing to patrol in a number of towns and villages, according to interviews with anti-government activists across the country. In at least one town in central Syria, troops occupied the town center, displacing thousands of residents.

Shelling continued in some parts of the central Syrian cities of Homs and Hama, and activists reported government troops and militiamen burned houses in Tal Refaat, a town near the northern city of Aleppo.

Activists reported 11 deaths in a pair of villages near Hama after Syrian military operations and raids in other areas, and the Reuters news agency reported 26 people had died in Homs. Clashes between the military and anti-government rebels were reported in the southern city of Daraa.

Still, the violence appeared to be far less than on Monday, when the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 134 people had been killed in a variety of attacks, which included helicopter assaults on the towns of Misqan and Marea near Aleppo and on families fleeing fighting in nearby Tal Refaat. Six towns near the northern city of Idlib were also subjected to artillery barrages and helicopter attacks Monday, the group reported.

On Tuesday, the Syrian state news agency, SANA, reported that 33 police officers and soldiers had been buried, but it did not say specifically when they had died.

Annan made his comments after touring camps in southern Turkey, where he got an angry reception from refugees chanting "Syria, Syria." U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, both advocates of arming the anti-Assad rebels, also toured refugee camps, where they received a hero's welcome.

Activists said Tuesday said that the military's "scorched earth" tactics of recent weeks appeared intended to deprive the rebels of sympathetic populations and to intimidate those who would demonstrate against the government.

An anti-Assad activist in Mudiq, 40 miles northwest of Hama, reported that residents of that city's ancient citadel, a tourist attraction in better times, were still waiting to return to their homes after a military operation that began a month ago and included 17 straight days of shelling. Even though the shelling has ended, the 3,000 residents who lived in the walled center section of the city have been unable to return home. The town of 20,000 is largely empty now, with most of the residents having fled.

"When they tried to go back, the army allowed some of them to take some of their furniture, but many of the families, the houses have been burned," said the activist, who asked that his name not be revealed for security reasons.

Khaled Khabbas, 21, a farmer who lived in the old city, was less concerned about anonymity. He said he fled the army's assault with his parents and four siblings.

"I don't have anything to lose," he said. "I came back to my house, I tried to get my furniture out, but they wouldn't let us. We are homeless. We are going from village to village. There is no assistance from anyone, just families who let us stay for a few days."

"The street where my house is, there are nine houses. All but one of them was burned by the army," he said.

The Syrian government has said that the operation was intended to dislodge rebel fighters in the citadel. But the activist, in a tacit acknowledgement that armed rebels had been in the citadel, said most of the fighters had withdrawn before the military arrived, knowing their light weapons were no match for the Syrian army's armor and artillery.

The activist said driving the people out and not letting them return was intended to separate them from the rebels, who collectively are known as the Free Syrian Army, and other anti-Assad activists.

"Twelve hundred families are now homeless, 400 of them in the old city," the activist said. "Their houses were either burned or totally destroyed."

The activist said that rebels in the area had stopped attacking pro-government forces, in accord with Annan's cease-fire plan, but would resume operations if the Syrian military remained after Thursday.

"The truce is only for two days, and the FSA will continue their operations against the Syrian army, especially if the outside world continues watching us without doing anything," he said.

Syrian activists say nearly 11,000 civilians and members of the Syrian military and security forces have been killed since March 2011. The government has said the rebels have killed more than 3,000 soldiers, police and civilians. It's unclear whether those deaths are in addition to those the anti-government activists reported or whether there's overlap between the numbers.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, and the U.N. estimated last month that about 250,000 Syrians had been displaced inside the country.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman contributed from Istanbul.)


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