Syria derides UN chief as peace plan in crisis
BEIRUT – Syria derided U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon as biased and called his comments "outrageous" Saturday after he blamed the regime for widespread cease-fire violations — the latest sign of trouble for an international peace plan many expect to fail.
In new fighting Saturday, activists said regime forces battled army defectors near President Bashar Assad's summer palace in a coastal village and shelled a Damascus suburb in pursuit of gunmen. State media said government troops foiled an attempt by armed men in rubber boats to land on Syria's coast, the first reported attempt by rebels to infiltrate from the sea.
The regime's verbal attack on the U.N. secretary general raised new concerns that Assad is playing for time to avoid compliance with a plan that could eventually force him out of office.
Under special envoy Kofi Annan's six-point road map, a cease-fire is to be followed by the deployment of as many as 300 U.N. truce monitors and talks between Assad and the opposition on Syria's political future. The head of the observer team, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, is to arrive in Damascus on Sunday to assume command, said spokesman Neeraj Singh.
Annan's April 12 cease-fire deadline has been widely ignored. The regime continues to attack opposition strongholds, while rebel fighters keep targeting security forces with roadside bombs and shooting ambushes. Defying a major truce provision, the Syrian military failed to withdraw tanks and soldiers from the streets.
Ban and Annan have cited violations by both sides, but generally portrayed the regime as the main aggressor. On Friday, Ban said Syria's repression of civilians reached an "intolerable stage" and demanded that the regime "live up to its promises to the world." His comments came just hours after a suicide bombing the regime blamed on anti-government "terrorists" killed 10 people in Damascus.
An editorial Saturday in the state-run Tishrin newspaper said Ban has avoided discussing rebel violence in favor of "outrageous" statements against the Syrian government. The editorial said the international community has applied a double standard, ignoring "crimes and terrorist acts" against Syria and thus encouraging more violence, according to excerpts carried by the state-run news agency SANA.
Mass protests against Assad erupted in March 2011, but gradually turned into an insurgency in response to a violent regime crackdown. Assad's regime denies it faces a popular uprising, claiming it is being targeted by a foreign-led terrorist conspiracy.
Saturday's comments were the regime's harshest against the U.N. since Syria announced last month it would abide by the Annan plan. The Syrian opposition and its Western backers argue Assad is not sincere and just buying time to consolidate his hold on Syria.
The regime "wants to make the U.N. a party to the conflict, rather than a mediator, and to stretch out the process to prevent any kind of serious change," Rami Khoury, an analyst at the American University of Beirut, said of Saturday's editorial.
However, the regime and its supporters argue that the world intentionally ignores rebel cease-fire violations, such as targeted killings of security officials, said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think tank who has traveled in Syria.
"In the regime's narrative, its use of force is only a reaction to such assaults," he said. "Officials and sympathizers cling to the idea that they are fighting a legitimate struggle against a fifth column of extremists."
Russia, Syria's main ally, repeatedly has demanded that more attention be paid to rebel violations of the Annan plan.
In fighting Saturday, government troops exchanged fire with about 30 soldiers after they defected at a military base near Assad's summer palace in the coastal village of Burj Islam, according to Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group.
The shooting, described as intense, lasted for 15 to 30 minutes, the activists said.
Syrian troops also intercepted armed men trying to land on the Syrian coast in rubber boats, the Syrian news agency said. The agency said the navy forced the boats to flee, but some Syrian service members were killed or wounded. The battle took place 30 to 35 kilometers (about 20 miles) from the Turkish border, SANA said.
Syrian authorities have said in the past that they clashed with rebels trying to cross from neighboring Lebanon or Turkey.
In Lebanon, authorities confiscated weapons found aboard a ship intercepted off the Lebanese coast and detained 11 crew members.
The ship reportedly sailed from Libya and stopped in Egypt and the port of Tripoli, Lebanon, en route to Syria. Lebanese media reported that the weapons were intended for Syrian rebels.
The Lebanese army said the "Lutfallah II" carried a Sierra Leone flag and had three containers filled with "large amounts of weapons and ammunition" on board. The vessel was taken to the port of Selaata, north of Beirut, where the three containers were placed on Lebanese army flatbed trucks and taken away Saturday morning.
Later Saturday, Syrian troops bombarded the Damascus suburb of Bakhaa with tank shells after a group of army defectors fled to the area from a nearby region, according to local activist Omar Hamza and the Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots activist group. The shelling killed at least 10 people, the activists said.
Activists also reported shelling in the central rebel-held town of Rastan and in Hama province. The Observatory reported intense clashes between troops and defectors in the northwestern province of Idlib and said five people were killed.
Fifteen U.N. truce monitors have been deployed in Syria, with the team to grow to 100 by mid-May. However, the regime continues to restrict access to most outsiders, including journalists, and reports by the regime and the opposition cannot be verified independently.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed reporting.