Middle East

Syrian army 'agrees to ceasefire in Zabadani'

Purported photo of member of the Free Syrian Army on guard in the town of Zabadani (16 January 2012)
Image caption Under the ceasefire, the Free Syrian Army will leave the streets of Zabadani

Syrian troops who were attacking rebels in the town of Zabadani, close to the capital Damascus, have agreed to a ceasefire, an opposition leader says.

Radwan Ziadeh told the BBC troops had shelled the town since Friday, but had agreed to stop hostilities as the Free Syrian Army had strong local support.

He said many members of the Syrian army had defected to the rebels' side.

Zabadani, which is also not far from the Lebanese border, has been the site of frequent anti-government protests.

The offensive on the town was the first launched by the army since an Arab League observer mission arrived in Syria last month.

It is tasked with verifying the implementation of a peace initiative, which has so far not brought an end to a government crackdown on dissent that the UN says has left more than 5,000 people dead since March.

On Tuesday, the government rejected a call from the Gulf state of Qatar for Arab troops to be sent to Syria to end the violence.

The foreign ministry in Damascus said the Syrian people rejected any foreign intervention or attempt to infringe their country's sovereignty.

President Bashar al-Assad has blamed a "foreign conspiracy" for the uprising against his rule, and officials say "armed gangs and terrorists" have killed at least 2,000 security forces personnel.

'Surprise'

On Tuesday evening, opposition leaders and activists in Zabadani announced that after two days of negotiations, a ceasefire had been agreed under which the army would withdraw and members of the Free Syrian Army leave the streets from Wednesday morning.

"The Syrian government is under pressure from the Arab League since the next meeting of the Arab League is approaching, and they don't need to put more pressure from the international community on them," Mr Ziadeh told the BBC.

"But at the same time, they are surprised at the strength of the Free Syrian Army, and the support they have among the population, and the Syrian dissidents there," he added.

Mr Ziadeh said defections among the troops besieging Zabadani had also played a part.

Another opposition leader, Kamal al-Labwani, told the Reuters news agency that "preachers were broadcasting the ceasefire agreement from the minarets of Zabadani".

At least one civilian and about 30 government soldiers had been killed since the bombardment began on Friday, Mr Labwani added.

Mr Labwani also said President Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat, had been involved in the ceasefire negotiations.

There has so far been no comment from the Syrian authorities.

UN intervention

Mr Ziadeh also told the BBC that the Arab League should ask the United Nations Security Council to intervene to prevent civil war in Syria.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Tim Whewell travelled with the Arab League team - who were mobbed by protesters

Until now, Russia and China have prevented any action by the body.

After talks with King Abdullah of Jordan on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said there were "unacceptable levels of violence" inside Syria.

"We will continue to consult very closely with Jordan to create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourage the current Syrian regime to step aside so that a more democratic process and transition can take place inside of Syria," he added.

A prominent Syrian tribal leader who has fled to Turkey meanwhile warned that the Free Syrian Army would intensify the armed struggle against the government if the Security Council failed to act.

"If the Security Council does not take the necessary decisions, then Syria's revolutionaries and the Free Syrian Army will be forced to act for themselves," Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir told a news conference in Istanbul.

Sheikh Bashir, who heads the main Baqqara tribe in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, also apologised for backing President Assad on state television in October, saying a gun had been pointed at his head.

But on Wednesday, Russia's foreign minister said that it would reject both the imposition of sanctions on Syria and the use of military force.

"For us, the red line is fairly clearly drawn," Sergei Lavrov told reporters.