World leaders accuse Syrian regime of stalling as fragile peace plan crumbles

Sixty-five more deaths reported as Assad ignores UN-backed ceasefire deadline

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The Independent Online

Syria's wanton disregard of the deadline for a ceasefire sparked international outrage yesterday, with pressure mounting for tougher measures to end the bloodshed.

The six-point peace plan drawn up by the UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, appeared doomed as Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, added further stipulations to Syria's compliance and 65 more deaths were reported across the country despite yesterday morning's troop withdrawal deadline.

Adding another caveat that was viewed as yet more stalling, Mr Muallem said that the ceasefire should only fully begin with the deployment of an international observer mission, but maintained that Syria was committed to the plan and said some pullbacks had already begun.

The disparity between his words and the violence on the ground resulted in outright condemnation. In Paris, the French foreign ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, accused Mr Muallem of "a blatant and unacceptable lie" in saying implementation had begun.

The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said Damascus had used the deadline as "a cover for intensified military efforts" adding that Britain was prepared to offer further support to the opposition if the peace plan derails. After visiting refugee camps in Turkey, Mr Annan yesterday insisted that it was too early to say the plan has failed.

The six-point roadmap is the only initiative tabled so far that has achieved the backing of Syria's allies Russia and China – veto holders at the UN Security Council – and its failure will leave the international community scrambling to come up with an alternative.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, had threatened to impose "further steps" if Mr Assad ignored the ceasefire and yesterday slammed his "merciless" killings. Tensions have mounted after Syrian security forces fired into a refugee camp on the Turkish side of the border on Monday, and there is speculation Turkey may set up a buffer zone on the border. Mr Erdogan will later this week fly to Saudi Arabia, one of Mr Assad's most forceful critics, for talks.

However, senior Western diplomats said it was unlikely that the Turks would take direct action. "There is deep apprehension that the Syrians will retaliate by arming the Kurds" said an American official.

Mr Hague called on Syria's allies to assert pressure. "All those with influence over the Syrian leadership, including Russia, have a duty to back efforts to stop the violence," he said. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that he had asked Mr Muallem during meetings yesterday to act "more decisively" to implement the terms of Mr Annan's plan during their meeting, but there are doubts that Moscow is putting any real pressure on the regime.

"Unless we see real force behind that statement I don't see how we are going to see the Syrians changing tact," said Salman Shaikh, an expert at the Brookings Doha Centre. A Syrian diplomatic source said that the withdrawals had begun in Homs, Idlib and the Damascus suburbs, however activists reported little let-up in the campaign of violence yesterday, with the Local Coordination Committees reporting that 28 were killed in Homs and another 20 in Hama, which it also said came under heavy shelling.

Saif al Arabe, a Homs resident, said the shelling in the city began at around 6am, the time regime forces were supposed to begin their pull back. "You cannot trust anything the Assad regime says," he said. "The firing and bombing is still ongoing."

Another said the neighbourhood of Bayada had been under fire. "They are attacking with mortars from three different locations," said Abu Yassar. "People have taken refuge in schools and now some of the schools were hit. We have at least 20 martyrs and 70 wounded, most of them women and children."