Annan says Syria agrees to April 10 peace deadline

Syria has pledged to withdraw all military units from towns by April 10 to pave the way for a full ceasefire with rebels two days later, the spokesman for international mediator Kofi Annan said on Monday.

The U.N.-Arab League peace envoy briefed the U.N. Security Council on the deadline behind closed doors, telling them there had been no reduction in violence so far, but urging them to consider an observer mission nevertheless, diplomats said.

Some Western diplomats expressed skepticism about the latest pledge from Syria, which has repeatedly promised to end a year-long assault on anti-government activists that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

“The Syrians have told us they have put a plan in place for withdrawing their army units from populated zones and surrounding areas. This plan … will be completed by April 10,” Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva.

“If we are able to verify this has happened on the 10th, then the clock starts ticking on the cessation of hostilities, by the opposition as well. We expect both sides to cease hostilities within 48 hours,” he told Reuters.

Annan met Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on March 10 and presented him with a six-point plan calling for the military pullout. His spokesman said a week ago that Assad had accepted the terms, adding that the “the deadline is now”.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said several council members had “expressed concern that the government of Syria not use the next days to intensify the violence”.

One diplomat said Annan confirmed to council members that there had been “no progress on the ground” towards halting the violence, which continues with daily reports of army shelling and shooting, and clashes with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“Today doesn’t feel much different from yesterday or the day before, or the day before that,” opposition activist Waleed Fares said from inside Homs. “Shelling and killing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist operation that collates reports from around Syria, reported 35 people killed on Monday, including eight soldiers and nine rebels, after 70 deaths on Sunday. Ten civilians were killed on Monday in the central province of Homs. In Syria’s second city of Aleppo, a bomb blast at a kiosk killed the owner, an Assad supporter, it said. At least five people were killed and eight wounded in army bombardments of villages in northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

Turkish officials said refugees were crossing the border at a rate of around 400 a day. Over 40,000 Syrians have taken refuge in neighboring countries since the unrest broke out a year ago, according to U.N. figures.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday to press for a daily two-hour ceasefire to evacuate wounded and deliver vital supplies to civilians, a proposal first made in February.

Despite the lack of progress, Annan urged council members to “begin consideration of deployment of an observer mission with a broad and flexible mandate”, a diplomat said.

The U.N. peacekeeping department is already planning for a ceasefire monitoring mission that would have 200 to 250 unarmed observers. It would require a Security Council resolution.

It was not clear how Russia or China would respond to Annan’s report. The two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have vetoed two council resolutions condemning Assad for turning the army on civilians demanding change.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen repeated that the Western allies have “no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria”. He said he did not believe providing weapons would help.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar favor providing arms to the FSA. But most Arab states and Western backers of the rebels oppose that.

FSA rebels have said they will stop shooting if the army pulls heavy weaponry out of cities. But the Assad government has said it must maintain security in urban areas and there has been no sign of tanks, armor or artillery moving out.

The United Nations says Syrian soldiers and security forces have killed more than 9,000 people over the past 12 months. Damascus says rebels have killed 3,000 troops and police.

Assad blames the unrest on foreign-backed “terrorists” and has put forward his own reform program, which his domestic foes and international opponents have dismissed.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at an international Friends of Syria conference with Assad’s opponents in Istanbul on Sunday, said Assad had a long list of broken promises behind him and would face serious consequences if he did not halt actions targeting civilians.

Although Western powers have been wary of military intervention, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared the situation to Bosnia in the 1990s.

“In the case of Bosnia, the international community was too slow therefore we lost many people,” he said. “In the case of Syria we have to act without delay.”

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Douglas Hamilton and Philippa Fletcher; editing by Angus MacSwan and Editing by Kevin Liffey