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Fragile UN-brokered cease-fire takes hold in Syria

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 11:20 a.m. MDT

U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan listens to a question during a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, unseen, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 11, 2012. Annan appealed to Syria's key ally Iran to support his plan to end the violence wracking the Arab country, saying that "any further militarization of the conflict would be disastrous."

Vahid Salemi, Associated Press

BEIRUT — A fragile cease-fire brokered by the U.N. took hold in Syria on Thursday with regime forces apparently halting widespread attacks on the opposition. But scattered violence was reported and the government defied demands to pull troops back to barracks, drawing criticism from international envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan told the U.N. Security Council that he was "encouraged" that the truce appeared to be holding but warned the Syrian regime has failed to implement key demands such as withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns.

He urged the 15-nation Council to demand that President Bashar Assad's government keep its promises and called for the speedy deployment of an observer mission, according to U.N. diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Annan's briefing was behind closed doors.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also said the onus was on Assad's regime to keep the peace.

"As of this moment, the situation looks calmer," he told reporters in Geneva. But the cease-fire is "very fragile" and a single gunshot could derail the process, he added.

In the hours after the 6 a.m. deadline, at least four civilians were reported killed — three by sniper fire — and the state-run news agency said "terrorist groups" launched a roadside bomb that killed a soldier. But there was no sign of the heavy shelling, rocket attacks and sniper fire that have become routine.

If the truce holds, it would be the first time the regime has observed an internationally brokered cease-fire since Assad's regime launched a brutal crackdown 13 months ago on mass protests calling for his ouster.

However, troops intensified searches at checkpoints, tightening controls ahead of possible large-scale protests Friday called by the opposition and meant to test the regime's commitment to the plan.

There was deep skepticism that the regime would halt its fire for long, given that Assad has broken promises in the past. Also, the regime said Wednesday, on the eve of the truce deadline, that it reserves the right to respond to any aggression, potentially a pretext for breaking the truce.

Annan's plan calls for the deployment of international observers and talks on a political transition once a truce is in place. The initiative has broad international support, including from Assad allies Russia, China and Iran, and is widely seen as the last chance for diplomacy to end the violence. The increasingly militarized uprising has been veering toward an armed insurgency.

Analysts said the apparent halt in government attacks suggests Assad's allies are pressuring him for the first time, after shielding him from international condemnation in the past. Annan has visited Russia, Iran and China to get the broadest possible backing for the plan.

The West and its allies doubt the sincerity of the regime's pledges to comply with the truce plan, which calls on the Syrian government to allow peaceful protests. A prolonged cease-fire could threaten the regime by encouraging large numbers of protesters to flood the streets, as they did at the start of the revolt against the four-decade rule of the Assad clan. The government met those demonstrations with a harsh crackdown, and more than 9,000 people have died since, according to the U.N.

Bassma Kodmani, spokeswoman of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the truce has largely been observed since 6 a.m. Thursday, but that a heavy security presence, including checkpoints and snipers remain.

"There is no evidence of any significant withdrawal," she told reporters in Geneva. "The real test for us today is if people can go and demonstrate peacefully" she added. "This is the real reality check."

The group's leader, Burhan Ghalioun, urged Syrians to demonstrate peacefully on Friday, the day of weekly protests since the uprising began. "Tomorrow, like every Friday, the Syrian people are called to demonstrate even more and put the regime in front of its responsibilities — put the international community in front of its responsibilities," he said.

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