By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY and ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan's deadline to pull the army back from population centers by April 10.
According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad's violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.
"Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan's plan March 27. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday's assault in Douma as among the worst around the capital since the uprising began.
"Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating," Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. "The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically."
He said the violence has not stopped and the situation on the ground "continues to deteriorate."
Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) outside Damascus, amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad's regime over the past year.
Activists said soldiers occupied Douma's Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.
"No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers," Syrian activist Omar Hamza told The Associated Press by telephone. "They are like stray dogs attacking sheep."
He said the shelling went on for eight hours, damaging homes and setting shops on fire. Hamza said the government appeared to be trying to put the heavily populated suburb under control before the cease-fire goes into effect for fear that there will be massive anti-government demonstrations near the capital if regime troops withdraw.
Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas Thursday with tanks in one of the most violent campaigns against the area since the uprising started.
He said troops were using detainees as human shields as they marched into one of the suburb's main squares.
"Soldiers in the Ghanam Square near the vegetable market were walking behind detainees," Saeed said via Skype. "They do that so that members of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said troops clashed with army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Syria's largest city of Aleppo.
Observers have expressed deep skepticism that Assad will abide by the peace plan, in part because large swaths of the country could slip out of his control if he pulls back the troops.
Analysts say Syria likely will to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time, or to argue that the regime cannot lay down its arms when "terrorists" are on the attack.
The regime denies that the uprising is the result of a popular will in Syria, calling it a foreign conspiracy being carried out by terrorists and gangs.
Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha said Syria was ready to cooperate with Annan's plan "as long as long as it also puts an end to the criminal acts being committed by the armed terrorist groups." The Syrian Foreign Ministry disputed the U.N. death toll of 9,000, saying 6,143 people — "civilians and military, women and children" — have been killed.
Hilal Khashan, political science professor at American University of Beirut, said the regime is trying to make gains on the ground before the deadline.