* Army pullout must be first move in ceasefire
* Annan says “deadline is now”
* Artillery, mortars hit Homs; five die in clashes
* Iranians freed as Iran helps Syria sell oil
By Erika Solomon and Douglas Hamilton
BEIRUT, March 30 (Reuters) - Syrian artillery hit parts of Homs city and at least five people were killed in clashes around the country on Friday, opposition activists said, as peace envoy Kofi Annan urged President Bashar al-Assad to order his troops stop shooting first.
“The deadline is now,” Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva. “We expect him to implement this plan immediately.”
Removing any ambiguity about the ceasefire terms of a six-point peace plan that Assad has said he accepts, Fawzi said it was up to the Syrian military to move first and show good faith by withdrawing tanks, big guns and troops from cities.
The plan also requires lightly-armed rebels to stop shooting. But the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has not said whether it accepts Annan’s proposals and political opposition groups have not explicitly endorsed his call for a dialogue with Assad.
The Annan plan “specifically asks the government to withdraw its troops, to cease using heavy weapons in populated centres”, Fawzi said. “The very clear implication here is that the government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side and with the mediator.”
An activist calling himself Abu Mohammed said Annan, who is acting on behalf of the United Nations and Arab League, would “need to explain to the FSA what they want and what the conditions are and it will depend on the situation at the time”.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First we want to see that the bloodbath ends,” he said. If the U.N. plan is adopted and peace monitors are deployed, the opposition could protest peacefully and openly as Egyptians did during their revolt against Hosni Mubarak, he said. “But it’s not going to happen.”
Activists said government snipers killed two people in the cities of Idlib and Homs, two people were shot dead elsewhere and rebels killed a soldier when they attacked a checkpoint.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported many wounded in fighting between troops and rebels in Idlib province.
Clashes also erupted overnight in the towns of Harasta and Arbin after rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at a building, killing a soldier.
In Homs, Syria’s third city, residents said shells and mortar rounds struck anti-Assad areas as troops conducted raids.
Tension rose in the Barzeh quarter of Damascus as security forces deployed and mobile phone connections went dead.
Assad’s strongest regional ally Iran said 12 Iranian citizens abducted “by Syrian opposition forces” had been released, including five engineers working for Syria’s power plant in Homs who were kidnapped in late December.
Iran’s state IRNA news agency said Syrian “armed gangs” had kidnapped dozens of pilgrims from Iran. In January, Syrian rebels released video footage of seven men they said were Iranian soldiers captured in Syria. The video’s authenticity could not be verified.
Iran is helping Syria beat Western sanctions by providing a tanker to ship Syrian oil to China, netting a potential $80 million. Iran, itself a target of Western sanctions, has promised to do all it can to support Assad, recently praising his handling of the year-long uprising.
The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed at least 9,000 people. The government says around 3,000 military and police members have been killed.
Along with Syria’s big-power ally Russia, China has also shielded Assad from foreign intervention, vetoing two Western-backed resolutions at the United Nations over the bloodshed.
China is not bound by Western sanctions against Syria.