Violence pauses as Syrian cease-fire takes effect

The guns fell silent at 6 a.m. Thursday as the Syrian cease-fire took effect. (BBC)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—The Syrian Army and rebel forces appeared to stand down as a cease-fire deadline took effect at 6 a.m. Thursday, foreign news sources reported. The cease-fire, brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, halted more than a year of bloodshed in which more than 10,000 Syrians have died, most of them civilians.

Rebel sources in the hard-hit provinces of Homs, Hama, and Idlib—which were targeted by constant shelling by President Bashar Assad’s forces in the week of negotiations preceding the cease-fire—told Reuters the situation was calm after 6 a.m.

Rebel sources in Damascus, the scene of sporadic attacks by opposition forces, said the capital was quiet.

“It was a bloody night. There was heavy shelling on the city of Homs, but now it is calm and there is no shooting,” said an activist in Syria’s third largest city, who called himself Abu Rami. At least 12 more civilians were killed by Syrian forces on Wednesday, activists said.

However, although the army’s guns had fallen silent, there was still no indication that Assad’s forces were withdrawing from rebel areas as they are required to do under the cease-fire agreement.

“There are no signs of a pullback. The tanks, snipers, and armed forces are still visible across the city,” Abu Rami told Reuters from Homs. Heavy shelling of  opposition neighborhoods leading up to the truce has left residents skeptical that it would last.

“The Defense Ministry announcement is a detour on Annan’s plan which clearly says he should pull back the tanks and end violence. We will wait until tomorrow and see. We will not act before tomorrow,” Qassem Saad Deen, Free Syrian Army spokesman inside Syria, told Reuters on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Annan said Wednesday night that a UN team negotiating how its observers would monitor the cease-fire had left Damascus after a week of inconclusive talks.

Quoting from a letter to Annan from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said the government had undertaken “to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory as of 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) tomorrow, Thursday, 12 April, 2012, while reserving the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces, or public and private property”.

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja’afari said in an interview Wednesday on PBS’s Charlie Rose program that his government is “on board” with the peace plan, but would remain on alert to “counterattacks.”

Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, according to a UN estimate. Damascus says rebels have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security personnel.

During the intensification of the Syrian Army’s assault on rebel positions before the cease-fire took effect, the flow of Syrian refugees fleeing the country for safety increased dramatically. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached nearly 30,000, with incidents reported of Syria shelling refugee camps in Turkish territory.

Some 9,000 Syrian refugees were reported to have reached Lebanon, most of them sheltering in the Bekaa Valley. The largest number of Syrian refugees in Jordan was estimated by the UN at 100,000, with unofficial estimates reaching  as many as 130,000.