U.N.-brokered cease-fire appears to take hold in Syria

But a Defense Ministry statement said that the government retained the right to retaliate against attacks by “armed terrorist groups,” casting into doubt its promise to halt the fighting under terms of the cease-fire proposed by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan — the central plank in the international community’s efforts to end the bloodshed. The Syrian government has long described the 13-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule as the work of “terrorists.”

There were no reports of violations immediately after the 6 a.m. cease-fire was to take hold, but most of the government’s attacks against opposition strongholds typically take place later in the day.

The White House urged caution on Wednesday, and activists also said they were skeptical that the cease-fire would be observed.

“The regime is going to quit shooting, but it is not going to quit arresting people and it is not going to quit torturing them,” said Omar al-Khani, a protest organizer in Damascus who uses a pseudonym. “We know we can’t trust this regime, for sure.”

Hours before the deadline for the cease-fire, government attacks continued in some opposition flash points, with Syrian troops reportedly shelling the central city of Homs and the Damascus suburb of Zabadani. Activists in Hama, in the north, said at least 20 tanks had been newly deployed in the center of the city, in violation of a clause in the cease-fire plan that calls for the withdrawal of tanks and troops from residential areas.

The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said at least 91 people were killed in Wednesday’s violence, including 57 in Homs. The Syrian Revolution, another group, put total casualties at 60, but the number could not be confirmed because the government is keeping most Western journalists out of Syria.

The Defense Ministry statement, however, implied that the government believes the offensive in recent weeks against opposition centers has crushed the revolt, allowing authorities to comply with the demand to halt the fighting on Thursday.
The decision to observe the cease-fire was taken after security forces “carried out successful missions in combating criminal acts by armed terrorist groups and enforced the authority of the state on all its territories,” the official SANA news agency quoted the ministry as saying.

Annan issued a statement saying he had received a letter from Syria’s foreign minister informing him of the decision.

Annan said he would continue to work with the Syrian government and the opposition to “ensure implementation” of his six-point plan, “including full compliance with Item 2,” which requires U.N. supervision of a cease-fire.

Syria has come under intense international pressure to comply with Annan’s peace plan, not only from Western powers such as the United States but also from its allies, including Russia, China and Iran. On Wednesday, Annan met with Iranian leaders in Tehran to urge them to put pressure on Damascus.

(…) Assuming violence continues after Thursday’s deadline, the Obama administration’s hopes of avoiding international intervention in Syria depend in large part on persuading Russia to drop its support for Assad’s government. Clinton is scheduled to meet Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is attending the G-8 gathering.

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