Syria negotiating deployment of UN mission

A team led by a Norwegian major general arrived in Damascus on Thursday to negotiate the possible deployment of a U.N. team that would monitor a cease-fire agreement between Syrian government troops and rebel forces, a spokesman for the U.N. Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said.

Ahmad Fawzi said the U.N. is already asking member nations to contribute about 200 to 250 soldiers who would monitor a cease-fire that should come into effect on April 10.

His comments came as activists said Syrian troops attacked the Damascus suburb of Douma, an assault the opposition says shows President Bashar Assad is intensifying violence in the days before the deadline.

Annan has asked the Norwegian major-general, Robert Mood, to "begin discussing with the Syrian authorities the modalities of 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 on which permanent members Russia, China, the U.S., Britain and France have veto powers.

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, Fawzi said.

"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.

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.

France's 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."

"We expect things to happen methodically, in a disciplined manner, and yes, they have told us that they have begun withdrawing," Fawzi said, referring to Syria's authorities. "And we are receiving positive signals from the opposition that once the government abides by the 10th of April deadline, they too will lay down their arms."

The U.N. has previously said that Syria has pledged to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas by April 10, in what could be a first step toward ending the bloody yearlong conflict.

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's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov didn't specify whether he was referring to a Security Council resolution or a less binding statement, but warned that the document shouldn't contain "any ultimatums or threats."

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.

Lavrov's warning against the use of ultimatums or threats in a U.N. motion backing Annan's plan indicated that Moscow will continue to protect Assad from foreign intervention.

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 Muammar Qaddafi.