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Syria defies cease-fire plan as peace hopes fade

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops defied a U.N.-brokered cease-fire plan Tuesday, launching fresh attacks on rebellious areas, but special envoy Kofi Annan said there was still time to salvage a truce 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 toward civil war. On Tuesday, Annan insisted his peace initiative remains “very much alive” — in part because there is no viable alternative.

The U.N. has ruled out any military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions and other attempts to isolate President Bashar Assad have done little to stop the bloodshed.

“If you want to take (the plan) off the table, what will you replace it with?” Annan told reporters in Hatay, Turkey, where he toured a camp sheltering Syrian refugees.

Facing a Tuesday deadline to pull back its tanks and troops, the Syrian government had said it was withdrawing from certain areas, including the rebellious central province of Homs. But France called the claims a “flagrant and unacceptable lie,” and activists said there was no sign of a withdrawal.

Residents of Homs reported some of the heaviest shelling in months.

“Hundreds of mortar rounds and shells were falling around all day,” resident Tarek Badrakhan told the Associated Press. He said a makeshift hospital housing wounded people and dozens of corpses was destroyed in the shelling.

“It’s now on the ground,” he said.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, obtained by the Associated Press, Annan said Syria has not pulled troops and heavy military equipment out of cities and towns, and the regime’s last-minute conditions put the entire cease-fire at risk.

The council strongly backed Annan, with all 15 members — including Syrian allies China and Russia — approving a press statement expressing “deep concern” at the failure by Damascus to withdraw its troops and heavy equipment.

“Obviously, members of the council are unified in their grave concern that this deadline has passed and the violence has not only continued but over the last 10 days has intensified,” said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

According to the deal, the pullback of Syrian forces was supposed to be followed by a full cease-fire by all within 48 hours. The halt in fighting would then pave the way for an observer mission and talks between both sides over the country’s future.

After 13 months of bloodshed, a revolt that began as a mostly peaceful movement against Assad’s stagnant and entrenched regime has morphed into an insurgency.

The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising began, and the toll climbs every day. Regime forces assault their opponents with tanks, machine guns and snipers, and the Free Syrian Army rebel group launches frequent attacks against government targets, killing soldiers and security forces.

Syria’s main opposition group said about 1,000 people have been killed in regime attacks in the last eight days alone, a figure that could not be independently confirmed.

The conflict is among the most explosive of the Arab Spring, in part because of Syria’s web of allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Western leaders have pinned their hopes on Annan’s diplomatic pressure, with the U.S. and others unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil — particularly one as unpredictable as Syria. Even though Washington has a clear interest in seeing Assad go, in part because it would be a blow to Iran, the Obama administration is reluctant to use force.

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