Syria’s foreign minister told Moscow Tuesday Damascus had started withdrawing troops in line with Kofi Annan’s peace plan but Russia said the regime should implement the initiative more decisively.
The rare visit by the veteran Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to Moscow coincided with a deadline under the Annan plan for Syria to withdraw forces from protest cities amid Western worries the scheme is in tatters.
“I told my Russian colleague of the steps Syria is taking to show its goodwill for the implementation of the Annan plan,” Muallem said after talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
“We have already withdrawn military units from different Syrian provinces,” he said without giving details on locations.
Later in the day the Russian foreign ministry said Muallem informed Lavrov that some Syrian troops deployed in the protest city of Homs had been pulled back in line with Annan’s peace plan.
“The minister informed (us) that some of the Syrian government troops have been pulled out of Homs to their permanent base,” it said in a statement.
“The Russian side applauded these actions and called on Damascus to make further steps to implement the Kofi Annan plan.”
Muallem also said Syria had freed some prisoners who had been arrested for participating in anti-government riots.
He added that a ceasefire should begin “simultaneously” with the arrival of international observers, in another apparent diversion from the Annan peace plan championed by the West.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, violence intensified and daily death tolls were often over 100.
Lavrov complained that Syria should be more decisive in fulfilling the plan of U.N.-Arab League envoy Annan, which most notably calls on Syria to pull out government forces and weaponry from cities hit by protests.
“We believe their actions could have been more active, more decisive when it comes to the implementation of the plan,” he said at a joint news conference with Muallem.
He added however that Muallem had informed him Damascus was starting to implement the key conditions of the plan concerning the withdrawal of weaponry and troops.
Damascus had already made clear it could only stick to the Annan plan if it received written guarantees from the rebels.
Lavrov said Annan would act as a mediator between Damascus and the rebels.
“I’ve heard (from Muallem) about a desire to receive a letter from Kofi Annan which would state how the opposition reacts to the relevant part of the six-point plan,” Lavrov said in response to a question about guarantees.
Later Tuesday, Lavrov spoke with Annan by phone, telling him to put more pressure on the rebels to cooperate with his initiative for imposing a formal ceasefire later this week.
He told Annan that “the Syrian opposition and states that support it must take urgent measures to ensure a sustainable ceasefire and called on Kofi Annan to step up his work with them along these lines,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a separate statement.
With tensions riding high between Damascus and Ankara after Syrian forces fired shots into a refugee camp across the Turkish border, Muallem accused Turkey of undermining the Annan plan by helping the rebels.
“Turkey hosts Syrian armed groups, has built training camps for them, lets them illegally cross into Syria and smuggle arms (to Syria) across its territory,” Muallem said.
Free army threatens to resume attacks
Meanwhile the Free Syrian Army said it will resume attacks on forces loyal to Assad if the regime does not stop shelling and pull troops out of protest hubs as promised.
“If (the regime) does not stop shelling and not withdraw tanks, we will intensify our military operations and launch attacks,” Colonel Kassem Saadeddine told AFP in Beirut.
He said FSA is “committed to the timetable set by Mr. Kofi Annan.”
“The regime was supposed to withdraw tanks by today, but we did not notice any movement in that direction. On the contrary, shelling continues, and forces have been reinforced in areas like the province of Hama,” he said.
He said the rebels will “wait the 48 hours without attacking the army, and will remain in a defensive position.”