Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday visited the country’s third-largest city, Homs, and its battered neighborhood of Baba Amr, a former opposition stronghold that has become a symbol of the anti-government uprising, in what appeared to be a show of his control over the country’s most rebellious areas.
A month-long siege by the government to drive rebel fighters out of Baba Amr killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians. Assad’s forces overran the rebel-held district on March 1.
In video aired by Syrian state television, Assad appeared relaxed in a blue shirt and sports coat as he pledged that Baba Amr would return “better than it was before.” He was greeted by residents who shouted, “We are with you until death!”
According to opposition leaders, Assad and his entourage were greeted in Homs with several gunshots in an apparent assassination attempt. The report was unconfirmed, however, and no further details were provided.
Syria accepted a cease-fire drawn up by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan on Tuesday, but the diplomatic breakthrough was swiftly overshadowed by intense clashes between government soldiers and rebel forces that sent bullets flying into Lebanon.
Opposition members accuse Assad of agreeing to the plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to crush bastions of dissent. Meanwhile, the U.N. said the death toll had grown to more than 9,000, a sobering assessment of the devastating year-old crackdown on the uprising that shows no sign of ending.
Annan’s announcement that Syria had accepted his peace plan was met with deep skepticism from the opposition.
“We are not sure if it’s political maneuvering or a sincere act,” said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. “We have no trust in the current regime ... We have to see that they have stopped killing civilians.”
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.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad had to act immediately.
“Given Assad’s history of overpromising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate action,” Clinton told reporters in Washington. “We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says. If he is ready to bring this dark chapter in Syria’s history to a close, he could prove it by immediately ordering regime forces to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad’s decision was only a first step.
“We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its practical actions, not by its often empty words,” he said.
Annan, who is an envoy for the U.N. and the Arab League, has traveled to Russia and China to shore up support for his peace plan. Russia and China have twice shielded Assad from U.N. sanctions over his crackdown, saying the statements were unbalanced and blamed only the government. Syria is Moscow’s last remaining ally in the Middle East and is a major customer for Russia’s arms industry, but the Kremlin has recently shown impatience with Assad.
In Beijing on Tuesday, Annan said China had offered its “full support” for his mission.
In contrast, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered Assad unequivocal support.
“I’m very happy that Syrian authorities are managing the situation with confidence,” the official Iranian news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. He echoed Assad’s charge that rebels were acting out a Western conspiracy. “Americans want to dominate Syria, Lebanon, Iran and all other countries through the false slogan of defending the freedom of the [Syrian] people, and we must be alert toward their conspiracy,” he said. Iran is one of Syria’s last true allies.
Despite the high-level diplomacy, the situation on the ground remained as bloody as ever.
There were conflicting reports about whether Syrian troops physically crossed the border into Lebanon during heavy fighting near a rural area around the Lebanese village of Qaa.
Two Lebanese security officials told The Associated Press that only bullets whizzed across the frontier. “There is no Syrian military presence on the Lebanese side of the border,” a military official said, echoing an official denial on the state-run National News Agency, which also said there was no incursion.
But two witnesses in Qaa said they saw dozens of troops enter Lebanon, apparently chasing Syrian rebels.
Any movement into Lebanese territory would escalate a conflict that already is spiraling toward civil war. There are concerns the violence could cause a broader conflagration by sucking in neighboring countries.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition published the names of the 9,018 Syrian civilians it claimed had been killed by the Syrian regime since the beginning of the popular uprising more than a year ago. Rebels claimed that 20 more people were killed on Monday in northern city Idlib as well as Damascus suburbs.