Syria clashes as Arab League meets in Baghdad

Still from activists' video purporting to show castle at Qalaat al-Mandiq being shelled (21 March) Qalaat al-Mandiq, known for its historic fortress, has been under siege for more than two weeks, activists say

Syrian forces are bombarding a town in the province of Hama for the 17th straight day, activists say, as the Arab League discusses a peace plan to end a year of fighting in Syria.

Government troops stormed the rebel bastion of Qalaat al-Madiq, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The UN and the Arab League have called on Syria to adopt the plan.

But Syria has said it will not address any initiative from the Arab League, from which it was suspended last year.

The plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan calls for a commitment from all parties to stop armed violence; a daily two-hour ceasefire to allow aid to get through; and media access to areas affected by fighting.

On Tuesday, the UN said the Syrian government had agreed to accept the plan - a claim met by scepticism from anti-government activists.

Analysis

We have been here before. Last November, President Assad agreed to a deal proposed by the Arab League which had many of the same elements as the Annan plan - withdrawal of government forces from residential areas, freeing of political prisoners and good-faith negotiations with the opposition.

None of those promises was kept.

The Annan plan contains no timetable for implementation, but for it to get any momentum, it must produce results on the ground in a matter of days.

The Syrian opposition groups who have been meeting in Istanbul this week are unanimous in their belief that President Assad is just playing for time. So they are convinced they will never have to confront the dilemma over whether to sit down and negotiate with him.

At Russia's request, the Annan plan makes no mention of any requirement for President Assad to leave office. But almost all the opposition groups say that requirement is non-negotiable; all they would be willing to talk about is how he leaves office, and what kind of system follows his departure.

But on Wednesday, a Syrian government spokesman told the BBC: "Since our membership was suspended, we deal with other Arab countries on a bilateral level only.

"Therefore, we will not be dealing with or addressing any initiative that comes out of the Arab League at any level," Jihad Makdisi said.

Siege

Syrian forces stormed Qalaat al-Madiq and nearby villages in Hama after a siege lasting more than two weeks, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website.

Their claim cannot be independently verified, as Syria severely restricts journalists' freedom of movement.

One activist said thousands of people had fled the area, including the rebels, who did not have enough weapons to fight back, Reuters reported.

More than 40 people were killed in Qalaat al-Mandiq in recent days, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, shelling continued around Homs, Syria's third-largest city and the scene of a major offensive by government forces last month, activists said.

'Command responsibility'

UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay accused the Syrian government of systematically detaining and torturing children.

Annan's six-point peace plan

1. Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people

2. UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians

3. All parties to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and implement a daily two-hour humanitarian pause

4. Authorities to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons

5. Authorities to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists

6. Authorities to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully

In an interview with the BBC, Ms Pillay said President Bashar al-Assad bore command responsibility for the abuses carried out by his security forces and would face justice.

"Factually, there is enough evidence pointing to the fact that many of these acts are committed by the security forces [and] must have received the approval or the complicity at the highest level," Ms Pillay said.

"Because President Assad could simply issue an order to stop the killings and the killings would stop."

Ms Pillay said she believed that the UN Security Council had enough reliable information to warrant referring Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Late on Tuesday, several Syrian dissident groups meeting in Istanbul agreed to recognise the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the official representative of the Syrian people.

But the BBC's Jonathan Head, in Istanbul, says their disunity was openly on display, with constant disputes and walkouts.

The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began a year ago.

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