Syria mostly calm as tenuous truce takes hold

(AP) 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 there were reports of scattered violence and the government defied demands by international envoy Kofi Annan to pull troops back to barracks.

A civilian and a Syrian soldier were reported killed after the 6 a.m. cease-fire deadline, but there was no sign of the normally intense 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 Bashar 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 Annan 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.

Annan is to brief the U.N. Security Council by video conference from Geneva on Thursday afternoon.

Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said a roadside bomb exploded near a bus carrying soldiers in the northern city of Aleppo, killing one officer.


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