A fragile Syrian ceasefire teetered precariously last night as both sides reported violations and the opposition prepared for large scale demonstrations which will test the Assad regime's commitment to holding fire.
Despite widespread scepticism, a lull in violence was reported over much of the country yesterday as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's final ceasefire deadline came into force at dawn. However, there was no sign of any significant army withdrawal and activists claimed there had been several incidents of sniper fire and shelling, counting at least five dead. The government also reported breaches and said an "armed terrorist group" had targeted a military bus with a roadside bomb in Aleppo, killing one officer.
For much of the day, the streets in the opposition strongholds of Homs and Hama lay eerily quiet as the tanks that have relentlessly shelled rebel neighbourhoods fell largely silent. But the atmosphere remained tense as army snipers prevented residents from resuming any semblance of normal life, activists said. Videos posted online purporting to be from Homs, where some neighbourhoods have suffered a near-relentless three-month siege, showed army snipers patrolling rooftops. On the deserted streets below, the muzzle of a tank could be seen ominously poking out above a row of sandbags.
"As of this moment, the situation looks calmer," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, but he described the ceasefire as "very fragile", adding that a single gunshot could derail the process. The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) complained that the truce was only being "partially observed" as regime tanks and troops had failed to pull back. Under Mr Annan's peace plan, the government was supposed to withdraw troops and heavy weaponry from population centres by Tuesday, but the deadline went ignored.
"If you are in Homs and you have a tank sitting at the end of your street that was shelling your neighbourhood, and the tank is still sitting there today, but it's stopped shelling, people are still going to be terrified," said Wissam Tarif, a Beirut-based spokesman for Avaaz, which has a network of activists across Syria. Avaaz said it documented at least four breaches of the ceasefire, including shelling near the Al Madeeq citadel in Hama, but had not verified any fatalities. The Local Coordination Committees claimed that one person was killed after being shot by a sniper in Bayada, a district of Homs, and two died in shelling in the nearby town of Al Qusayr. There is no way of verifying such claims.
Several reports of violence and arrests came after protesters took advantage of the lull in violence to take to the streets and protest. In the Idlib town of Janodieh, two protesters were reported to have been shot dead when regime forces tried to disperse crowds.
That does not bode well for the ceasefire holding today, when opposition groups are planning large-scale demonstrations after Friday prayers. Demonstrations will prove a real test for the regime, which will be desperate to prevent any large opposition gatherings.
The SNC leader, Burhan Ghalioun, urged Syrians to demonstrate peacefully, but to come out in force. The international community had been sceptical of President Bashar al-Assad's commitment to the ceasefire but analysts said that this partial halt shows that regime must feel under pressure.
Ceasefire watch: Voices from three flashpoints
"For once we woke up and could hear the birds... there has been no shelling or bombing in my neighbourhood so far, but I have heard one or two explosions elsewhere in the city. Some families tried to use the ceasefire to return home. But as soon as they tried to enter the area, the snipers fired on them in their cars".
"We've had constant shelling [for the past month] so we were very lucky to have only three shells at about 6.30 this morning.... [But] even with less shells there is still a tense atmosphere.... There is a dangerous lack of food and daily necessities. Even with the ceasefire in place, people are still very afraid".
"Life is almost normal, people and cars are out on the streets [and] there's been no firing today... the army has pulled the tanks out from the streets... but they are still surrounding the city and we never know when they might shoot. It's peaceful for the moment but people in Deraa do not believe the ceasefire will last".
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