We'll cease fire if tanks, big guns go: Syria rebels

Reuters News

3/31/2012 12:18:46 PM - Reuters News

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are ready to stop fighting the moment the army withdraws its tanks, artillery and heavy weapons from opposition areas, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army commanders inside Syria said on Saturday.

Rebels taking part in the year-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule say they are still skeptical the government will commit to a meaningful ceasefire.

But the statement from Lieutenant Colonel Qassim Saad al-Din was the first time any rebel commander has signaled a willingness to go along with a ceasefire plan proposed by United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan has said the army should make the first move to withdraw from populated centers, but Syria says it must be allowed to maintain security.

"We cannot accept the presence of tanks and troops in armored vehicles among the people. We don't have a problem with the ceasefire. As soon as they remove their armored vehicles, the Free Syrian Army will not fire a single shot," Saad al-Din told Reuters by telephone from Homs.

Homs has been the centre of armed rebellion against Assad, whose forces have cracked down fiercely on the unrest, including a heavy shelling campaign in the central city that killed hundreds.

It is unclear how much authority Saad al-Din, described as a spokesman for rebel commanders inside Syria, has over rebel units. The FSA chain of command is weak and mostly localized. Top exiled leaders General Mustafa al-Sheikh and Lieutenant Colonel Riad al-Asaad were unavailable for comment.

"BATTLE OVER"

A rebel officer in Damascus said he agreed in principle with Saad al-Din's view on the rebel response to the ceasefire plan.

"We don't really believe this is going to work, but in the unlikely case that Assad was to actually show good will by stopping this heavy siege of hotspots with tanks and shelling ... then our leaders can issue an order to stop operations and we will commit to it to show our good intentions," the officer with Saif al-Haq Brigade said.

More than 9,000 people have been killed in the security forces' crackdown on an uprising that began as peaceful protests but turned increasingly bloody when armed rebels began to bring the fight to Assad's forces.

The government blames the unrest on foreign-backed militants and says around 3,000 security force members have been killed.

Syria has claimed victory over the opposition in recent days, saying "the battle to topple" Assad was over. Days of heavy shelling have driven rebels from key positions in main cities, but they still launch hit and run attacks on the army.

Saad al-Din said opposition fighters were disappointed that the international community had not forced Assad to step down. But he said the rebels' willingness to follow the UN-backed ceasefire plan did not mean they had given up trying to end Assad's rule.

"When the army withdraws from the cities, the rebels will go back to their normal lives. But the world should know this means that the peaceful protests will return," he said. "Regimes eventually disappear but the people always remain."

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Tim Pearce)