Annan talks tough to Assad

Peace envoy Kofi Annan accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces of atrocities and arbitrary arrests.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

DOHA - International peace envoy Kofi Annan accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces of atrocities and arbitrary arrests, and said on Saturday he had delivered a blunt message to Assad to act now to implement all points of a peace plan.

Annan, appointed as envoy on Syria by both the United Nations and the Arab League, said the spectre of an all-out civil war was growing daily to the concern of other Middle East countries.

Underlining this fear, nine people were killed and 42 wounded in clashes between Assad supporters and opponents who fired machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades at each other in neighbouring Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli.

At a meeting with the Arab League, Annan gave a bleak assessment of Syria 15 months on from the start of an uprising against Assad and a week after a massacre of more than 100 people that U.N. monitors blamed on pro-Assad forces.

"(Assad) must make bold and visible steps immediately to radically change his military posture and honour his commitment to withdraw heavy weapons and cease all violence," said Annan, who met the Syrian leader in Damascus on Tuesday.

"What is important is not the words he uses but the action he takes - now," said the envoy, adding that his message to Assad had been "very direct and frank".

Annan, who has been touring the region, said: "The spectre of all-out civil war, with a worrying sectarian dimension, grows by the day.

"I felt the concerns of Syria's immediate neighbours very acutely in my consultations in recent days."

LEBANON CLASHES

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati rushed to Tripoli, about 70 km (43 miles) north of Beirut, to try to stop the violence. The army moved into the area with armoured vehicles but did not open fire.

Saturday's death toll was the highest in a single day in Tripoli, raising fears that Syria's unrest could spill over into its smaller neighbour.

In Turkey, nearly 400 more Syrian refugees had crossed the border to escape fighting in Syria's Idlib province, raising the total to more than 24,500, Turkish authorities said.

In Syria, rebels killed six soldiers in the southern province of Deraa and at least eight in clashes on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The group said two civilians were killed, one during army raids in Damascus and one by gunfire in the city of Homs, the target of a siege by Syrian forces in February and March.

Since the conflict started, Assad's forces have killed 7,500 people, according to a U.N. toll. The government, which blames the unrest on what it calls foreign-backed terrorists, says more than 2,600 soldiers or security agents have been killed.

Annan said the massacre of men, women and children in the eastern Houla region last week was a terrible crime. "Worst of all, it is one of many atrocities to have taken place," he said.

"Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are internally displaced. Meanwhile, arbitrary detentions continue, and alongside that, widespread allegations of human rights abuses of all kinds."

Although Annan peace plan looks increasingly forlorn, it appears to be the only option on the table, as foreign governments are reluctant to intervene militarily and Russia is defending Assad on the diplomatic front.