ICRC chief holds aid talks in Syria, as violence kills 23
Violence in Syria killed 23 people on Tuesday, according to activists, as International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) chief Jakob Kellenberger held talks with Syrian officials to discuss ways of getting much-needed aid to restive areas, DPA reported.
Kellenberger met with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Interior Minister Mohamad al-Shaar, and Minister of Health Wael al-Halki.
"Al-Moallem affirmed that Syria will continue to provide all that is needed to ensure the success of the ICRC's work and humanitarian mission in coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent," state-run SANA news agency reported.
Humanitarian access is one condition of a six-point plan to end the conflict in Syria, proposed by UN-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan and accepted last month by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Kellenberger, who is on his third visit to Syria, is also seeking access to detention centres where arrested protesters are jailed. He was due to visit the province of Daraa on Wednesday with ICRC teams, Syrian media reported.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said 13 pupils, all male and aged between 17 and 19, were reportedly arrested on April 1 by men in plain clothes at a secondary school in the Daraya town, in the Damascus suburbs.
Family members told the London-based organization that, according to witnesses, the students were searched, beaten and verbally abused in front of other pupils before being taken away.
"There are thousands of people still in detention across Syria, many held incommunicado, in danger of being tortured, and without access to lawyers," said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.
"Continuing to hold people in such conditions, and making new arrests like this, raises serious questions about how serious the government is about respecting its commitments under the Annan plan," Harrison added.
Shelling and clashes between army troops and rebels continued on Tuesday, despite promises by the government to start implementing Annan's peace plan, activists said.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees, which document violence on the ground across Syria, said 23 people were killed, mainly in the northern province of Idlib.
Troops were heavily deployed around the area of Zabadani at the outskirts of the capital Damascus, activists said.
"Dozens of tanks backed by troops were deployed at the Zabadani area, in a move seen by observers as a prelude to storm the area," Syrian Activist Haytham al-Abdullah told dpa from the region.
Annan said on Monday that al-Assad had agreed to "immediately" start pulling troops out of protest cities and to complete a troop and heavy weapon withdrawal by April 10, US ambassador Susan Rice said after Annan briefed the UN Security Council.
Damascus had in turn demanded that the rebels stop the violence within the following 48 hours, she added.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting was raging in the southern province of Daraa, the birthplace of the one-year uprising against al-Assad. The clashes killed 12 people.
The Observatory said that troops burnt around seven houses in Dael and arrested dozens of civilians from the village.
Activists reported from Daraa that troops were storming bakeries and throwing bread on the floor, in a move aimed at starving people.
According to United Nations estimates, more than 9,000 people have died in the crackdown by al-Assad's government since March 2011.
SANA said Syrian troops foiled an infiltration attempt by insurgents from the Turkish border into Syria.
"One insurgent was killed in the clash but the rest managed to escape," the news agency reported.
A Western diplomat based in Damascus told dpa earlier that a UN team was scheduled to arrive in the country in 48 hours' time, to discuss sending between 150-200 UN monitors to supervise the ceasefire, in keeping Annan's peace plan.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against placing too much emphasis on the April 10 deadline for the government to withdraw troops from restive areas.
"Ultimatums and deadlines rarely help in such a matter," Lavrov said during a visit to Armenia, according to Rosbalt news agency.
"We will work for the full execution of all six points of the plan put forward by Kofi Annan, and want to see effective and speedy responses to his suggestions," said Lavrov.
"But a starting point for our thinking is, that the same message should be sent by our Western partners and some Arab states to those armed groups who are letting blood on Syria's soil."