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Middle East

Assad metes out a day of brutal violence

Syrian activist network the LCC said 'there is absolutely no evidence that the regime is pulling back'

Ferocious regime assaults on Damascus and the shell-battered city of Homs were reported by activists inside the country yesterday, despite claims that the Syrian government had begun withdrawing troops from cities across the country ahead of the agreed ceasefire deadline next week.

On what has been termed one of the most violent days since the conflict in Syria began, activists said yesterday that the army had stepped up its offensive in an attempt to weaken the opposition ahead of a ceasefire due to start on 10 April, brokered by Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN.

The renewed assaults came as former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in an interview with ITV News that Britain "should keep all the options open" when contemplating intervention in Syria.

Mr Blair added: "What is very important is that we carry on sending a very strong message to Assad and the Syrian regime that this is not something where they can just roll over the people and then we are going to say 'ok, let's just forget about it'. No, we will be there and be active in support of the Syrian people who want freedom and the chance to elect their government."

In the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said the area suffered eight hours of shelling in the worst violence the capital's suburbs have seen so far, with snipers firing at "anything that moved". The mosque was said to be partially destroyed and shops in the central souk shelled and burnt down.

A video posted online, purportedly filmed in Douma, showed an elderly man who had been selling parsley in the market gunned down.

"There is absolutely no evidence that the regime is pulling back by any stretch of the imagination," said Rafif Jouejati, a spokesperson for the Syrian activist network, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC). "On the contrary, they have a choking security siege on almost any major town."

In Homs, 14 people were killed by yesterday afternoon according to the LCC, out of a total of 43 dead across the country. Heavy shelling was reported in the neighbourhoods of Khalidiya and Al-Rabi' Al-Arabi, as well as violent clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the regime's forces at the entrance of the Eastern neighbourhood.

An activist group called the Revolutionary Council of Homs said Wednesday saw the most widespread violence in the central city since the two-month-long siege began, with the army using artillery including tanks, mortars and rockets. In Idlib, where troops were supposed to have begun pulling out, at least 17 were killed, according to activists.

Fares Mohamed, a resident of the mountain town of Zabadani, which is close to the Lebanese border and was once a popular tourist resort, said claims that troops had withdrawn from his town were "lies". "There are still tanks in the streets and more shelling today, like everyday," he told The Independent.

He said around 30 residents had been arrested in dawn raids by security forces and about 60 in Douma, in a sign that President Assad might be embarking on a final push to dismantle opposition networks before the ceasefire deadline. The ceasefire and withdrawal are stipulations of a six-point peace plan drawn up by Mr Annan, and accepted by Syria last week.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly via video link, Mr Annan said the cessation of violence is the "most crucial" part of his plan, adding that "more far-reaching action is immediately required".

As he spoke, an advance team of UN monitors, led by senior UN peacekeeper and former chief of staff of the Norwegian army, Major-General Robert Mood, arrived in Damascus to discuss the deployment of unarmed peacekeepers to observe the truce.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minster Alain Juppé said yesterday that the international community is being "tricked" by Assad. "He's pretending to accept Kofi Annan's plan while at the same time still using force," he said.

As the assaults continue, Syrians brave perilous journeys over the landmined borders to safety. More than 1,600 have fled to Turkey in the last two days, bringing the total number there to 21,285. Such spikes usually correspond to violence on the ground and many of those escaping to Turkey fled from neighbouring Idlib, where activists say the army has been burning and bulldozing homes.