BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces bombarded cities and towns in southern and northern Syria on Wednesday and stormed villages, forcing thousands to flee after President Bashar al-Assad accepted a peace plan calling for the army to withdraw to barracks.
Assad’s ally Iran backed the peace plan, saying Syria’s crisis “should be dealt with patiently”, and Russia said it was now up to Syria’s opposition groups to also endorse the proposals, which do not require Assad to give up power.
But the United States, Germany and the Arab League called for action not words. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said there was “no time to waste” in implementing a ceasefire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported military action against towns and villages from the southern province of Deraa to the Hama region 320 kms (200 miles) to the north including shelling in parts of Homs, where Assad on Tuesday toured the devastated streets of a recaptured rebel bastion.
“Military forces accompanied by dozens of armored vehicles stormed the town of Qalaat al-Madiq and nearby villages (in Hama),” the Observatory website reported. The town and its imposing 13th century citadel had been under fire for 18 days, said one activist who gave his name as Abu Dhafer.
“Thousands of people have fled and nearby villagers have gone to homes in safe areas. They are cramming people into their homes, a dozen to a room, men, women and children.”
Four rebels, four civilians and four soldiers were killed In the fighting and five civilians were killed in the shelling of the district of Khalidiya in Homs, activists said.
Western and Arab powers who have called on Assad to step down were unimpressed by news on Tuesday that he had accepted the six-point peace plan of Kofi Annan, special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, calling for the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from cities ahead of peace talks.
“We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on him to pull the army back to base.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwlle said “it is actions that count not words, and not just declarations of intent”.
Diplomats in New York said one of the ideas Annan is pushing is a U.N. observer mission to monitor an eventual ceasefire. An international ceasefire monitoring mechanism for Syria would probably need a U.N. Security Council mandate, they said.
One possibility is to temporarily boost an existing U.N. observer mission in the Middle East and enhance its mandate to include Syria, they said. One senior diplomat said that an observer mission would probably include citizens of Arab and non-Arab countries, though it is unlikely that the Arab League would be formally involved in the creation of a mandate because Syria would oppose that.
“When the time comes, I think the Security Council will adopt a resolution (on an observer mission),” he said.
Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Baghdad ahead of an Arab summit, called for the peace plan to be put into action.
“We cannot be impartial on this matter of daily violence, killing and bloodletting,” Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters. “The international resolution, which Syria has approved, we believe it’s a positive and constructive step... But it needs implementation”.
Arab states, split over how to deal with Syria’s crisis that threatens to inflame the region’s sectarian fault lines, appeared to back away from their initial proposal that Assad step aside to allow his deputy to delegate and foster talks.
Assad’s government rejected in advance any initiative relating to Syria by an Arab League summit in Baghdad.
“Syria will not deal with any initiatives issued by the Arab League on the Syria situation that is issued at the Baghdad summit,” a Syrian official was quoted as saying.
Assad’s opponents in the Syrian National Council (SNC) were skeptical of the Annan plan and Assad’s proclaimed acceptance of its terms, and continued to press for him to stand down.
“He is buying time. It means more killing. He is playing games,” said SNC member Adib Shishakly. “Every hour we are losing five people. So really, time is life.”
Russia, by contrast, said the “Friends of Syria” meeting due to take place in Istanbul on Sunday would just be a cloak for one-sided foreign interference.
It urged Syrian opposition groups “to follow the example of Damascus and clearly declare their agreement with ... the peaceful resolution proposals” of Annan.
Clinton urged Syria’s splintered opposition to unite.
“They must be able to clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and protecting the rights of all Syrians,” she said. “We are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision in Istanbul.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Syrian forces shot dead two freelance British journalists of Algerian descent and wounded a third during an attack on Monday in the town of Darkoush near the Turkish border.
It quoted a Syrian witness who had been helping them.
The United Nations estimates government forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the upheaval over the past year. Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Assad bore direct responsibility for what his troops were doing and was therefore liable for war crimes prosecution.
Pillay said children in detention were being tortured.
“It’s just horrendous,” she said. “Children shot in the knees, held together with adults in really inhumane conditions, denied medical treatment for their injuries.”
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Maryam Karouny in Bahgdad, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Marcus George in Dubai.; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Diana Abdallah