Assad in 11th-hour promise to respect ceasefire

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Syria has promised to stop fighting in time for the deadline for a ceasefire brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan but reserved the right to respond to any aggression, a significant hedge against any end in the fighting that has convulsed the nation for more than a year.

The statement came as Mr Annan was in Tehran to seek support for his faltering plan to stop the country’s slide toward civil war. Iran is one of Syria’s most powerful allies.

Many world leaders see Mr Annan’s plan – which called for Syria to pull its tanks back to barracks on Tuesday, followed by a full cease-fire by both sides by 6am today – as the best hope to calm a year-old conflict that has killed 9,000 people.

But the US and others also are sceptical president Bashar Assad’s regime will fully comply after several previous failures. Syria disregarded the Tuesday deadline, and was still attacking its opponents with rockets and mortar fire.

In a statement carried on the state-run SANA news agency, a defence official said Syria’s army successfully fought off “armed terrorist groups,” which is the term Damascus uses to describe those behind the country’s year-old uprising.

“A decision has been taken to stop these missions as of the morning of Thursday, April 12, 2012,” the official said, adding: “Our armed forces are ready to repulse any aggression carried out by the armed terrorist groups against civilians or troops.”

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem sent a letter with an identical pledge to the joint UN-Arab League envoy. Mr Fawzi said Mr Annan will work with the Syrian government on implementation of his six-point plan to end the bloodshed.

The Syrian uprising is among the most explosive of the Arab Spring, and the UN estimates 9,000 people have been killed in the conflict since March of last year.

In neighbouring Jordan, an interior ministry official said the country was – by yesterday afternoon – playing host to 95,000 Syrian refugees who had fled the conflict.

And in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to maintain pressure Russia over the Syria crisis, saying its refusal to support action by the United Nations Security Council was keeping President Bashar Assad in power.

Mrs Clinton said the US would again try to persuade Russia, a key Syrian ally, to support action that would at least allow humanitarian access, when foreign ministers of the G-8 met in Washington yesterday.

She warned that the danger was rising of regional conflict and civil war flaring from the violence in Syria.

Russia’s “refusal to join us in some kind of constructive action is keeping Assad in power, well-armed, able to ignore the demands of his own people, the region and the world,” she said.

Her comments came after Syrian troops defied a UN-brokered ceasefire plan on Tuesday, launching fresh attacks on rebellious areas.

But UN special envoy Kofi Annan said there was still time to salvage a truce that he described as the only chance for peace.

More than a year into the Syrian uprising, the international community has nearly run out of options for halting the slide towards civil war. On Tuesday former UN Secretary General Mr Annan insisted his peace initiative remained “very much alive” – in part because there was no viable alternative.