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Damascus - Armed rebels have given Syria's regime until Friday noon (0900 GMT) to observe Kofi Annan's plan for ending bloodshed in Syria, warning they will take “courageous decisions” if the deadline is not met.
The ultimatum by the Free Syrian Army came soon after US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice warned that prospects for a political solution in Syria are now “almost non-existent” and that the Security Council must discuss new action against Damascus.
“If the Syrian regime does not meet the deadline by Friday midday, the command of the Free Syrian Army announces that it will no longer be tied by any commitment to the Annan plan ... and our duty will be ... to defend civilians,” an FSA statement said.
Parties to the Syrian conflict, which has seen more than 13 000 people killed since an anti-regime revolt erupted in march last year according to monitors, agreed on April 12 to abide by a truce brokered by Annan, the UN-Arab League's peace envoy to Syria.
The truce has largely been ignored, despite the deployment of nearly 300 UN observers on the ground, with the death toll spiralling in recent weeks as regime forces assault opposition strongholds.
The FSA singled out in particular a May 25-26 massacre near the central town of Houla in which more than 100 people died, including 49 children and 34 women.
Some were blown to bits by artillery and tank fire but most were summarily executed, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“After the barbarous massacre of women and children at Houla ... we announce that there is no more justification for us to unilaterally respect the truce because (President Bashar al-Assad) has buried Annan's plan,” the FSA statement added.
It said it would announce in the coming days “a series of decisive and courageous decisions for the next phase” of their struggle against Assad's forces.
The rebels demanded that the regime adhere to all six points of the Annan plan: an immediate ceasefire; an end to all forms of violence; tanks and armoured vehicles out of civilian areas; humanitarian access to all regions; the freeing of political prisoners and protesters; and access by the media to all parts of the country.
On Wednesday, the UN observer mission chief in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, announced that 13 bodies of people killed execution-style had been found in the eastern town of Assukar, describing it as an “appalling and inexcusable act.”
Later in the day, UN under secretary general Herve Ladsous gave the UN Security Council a “sombre” account of the killings in Assukar and of last week's massacre near Houla.
The United States, France, Britain and Germany all emerged from the UN Security Council meeting urging measures up to sanctions by the 15-nation body.
Rice told reporters that increased pressure “could include sanctions of the sort that have been alluded to and discussed, and we were among those that raised that possibility”.
Syrian allies China and Russia, which have both blocked previous attempts at the Security Council to condemn the government of Assad, joined other council members on Sunday in approving a statement condemning the Houla massacre.
But Russia insisted that the weekend's rebuke went far enough.
“We believe that a review now by the Security Council of any new measures on the situation would be premature,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.
“It is essential to give the (peace) plan of Kofi Annan time to work”, because intervention could “only exacerbate the situation for both Syria and the region as a whole”, he told Interfax news agency.
The United States warned Russia and other backers of Syria they were on the wrong side of history.
“I would simply say that it is our belief, and it's the belief that we express in these conversations, that supporting the Assad regime is placing oneself or one's nation on the wrong side of history,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
US President Barack Obama discussed the need for an end to the violence in Syria in a video conference with the leaders of France, Germany and Italy.
The White House said the consultations with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti represented a follow up to the G8 summit Obama hosted earlier this month.
On the ground, Syrian forces launched a new assault on Wednesday on the site of Houla massacre, forcing villagers to flee heavy shelling in fear of more carnage, a watchdog and the opposition said. - Sapa-AFP