UN team lands in Syria for cease-fire talks

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Syrians wave revolutionary flags and chant slogans at a night protest against President Bashar Assad in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 2, 2012. (AP Photo)

GENEVA (AP) — A team led by a Norwegian major general arrived Thursday in Damascus to negotiate the possible deployment of U.N. monitors for any cease-fire between Syrian troops and rebel forces.

Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for peace envoy Kofi Annan, reported the arrival and said the U.N. is already asking members to contribute 200 to 250 soldiers to monitor a cease-fire that officials hope would start April 10.

His comments came as activists reported that Syrian troops attacked the Damascus suburb of Douma, an assault they said shows that Syrian President Bashar Assad is intensifying violence in the days before the deadline. Assad's crackdown on the yearlong uprising has left at least 9,000 people dead, according to the U.N.

Annan has asked the Norwegian major-general, Robert Mood, to begin discussing with the Syrian authorities "the eventual deployment of this U.N. supervision and monitoring mission," Fawzi said.

Such a contingent would first have to be authorized by the 15-nation Security Council.

Fawzi said the Syrian government should remove its troops and heavy weapons from populated areas and "begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers" by April 10, and then both sides will have 48 hours to stop fighting.

"The clock starts ticking on the 10th for both sides to cease all forms of violence," Fawzi said.

Fawzi's comments were an attempt to clarify the sequence of events envisioned by Annan's peace plan aimed at bringing an end to an uprising that has left thousands of people dead.

Annan has courted support for his plan at meetings with leaders in Moscow and Beijing and now plans to visit Tehran on April 11, Fawzi said.

"A cessation of violence is an important beginning," Annan told the U.N. General Assembly in New York, speaking by video link from Geneva. "I am acutely aware of the grave situation on the ground. ... Let us stop the killing and start serious political dialogue, for the well-being of the Syrian people."

In New York, diplomats said the Security Council has agreed on a statement endorsing the April 10 deadline. The statement calls on Assad's government to "urgently and visibly" carry out the withdrawals, and raises the possibility of "further steps" if Syria doesn't comply.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was not optimistic about a peace plan for Syria and is ready to push for stronger U.N. action if the deadline is not met. Assad "is deceiving us" when he promises to abide by the peace plan, Juppe said.

"If we manage to get 200 observers (and the other measures in the peace plan) in place, things will change dramatically," he told reporters in Paris. "If we don't manage to get this by April 12, we have to go back to the U.N. Security Council."

Syria has told U.N. officials that it is withdrawing troops from the southern province of Daraa, the northwestern province of Idlib and mountain resort town of Zabadani, north of Damascus, Fawzi said.

Fawzi warned that they do not "expect anything to happen magically."

Syria's key ally Russia, meanwhile, said it could support a Security Council motion backing Annan's peace plan if it doesn't contain ultimatums to Assad's government.

Russia has grown increasingly impatient with Assad, criticizing him for being slow at reforms and urging him to take the first step in implementing Annan's plan.

Russia has vowed to block any U.N. resolution that could pave the way for a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO action helped oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.


Angela Charlton in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. in New York contributed to this report.