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Syria vows pullout from cities by April 10

Syria told international envoy Kofi Annan that its military will withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas by April 10, in what could be a first step toward ending the bloody yearlong conflict, U.N. diplomats said Monday.

The announcement came as Syrian troops hunted down activists and destroyed their homes in the country's rebellious areas, and the United States remained skeptical of Damascus' latest statements, pointing to previous broken promises. Britain, France, Germany and a number of other countries also questioned whether Syrian President Bashar Assad would keep his word, the diplomats said.

"We have seen commitments to end the violence followed by massive intensifications of violence," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. "So the United States, for one, would look at these commitments and say, yet again, the proof is the actions, not in the words."

Rice said Annan told the U.N. Security Council that he received a letter from Syria's foreign minister on Sunday with the April 10 date and indicated he would have preferred the pullback to begin earlier. Annan urged the Syrian government to start the withdrawal immediately and move no further into populated areas, and "that commitment was provided," Rice added.

"Past experience would lead us to be skeptical and to worry that over the next several days rather than a diminution of the violence, we might, yet again, see an escalation of the violence," said Rice, the current council president. "We certainly hope that is not so."

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the April 10 deadline was set "by common accord" between Annan and the Syrian government, and he again pledged his government's complete support for Annan's six-point plan to end the yearlong Syrian crisis.

Annan told the council if Syria meets the April 10 deadline, and this can be verified, then the opposition would have 48 hours to wind down its military activities so there would be a complete cessation of hostilities, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because his briefing was closed.

Annan's plan to end Syria's crisis calls for an immediate withdrawal of troops and heavy military equipment from populated areas, followed by an overall cease-fire -- first by government forces and then by opposition fighters -- to pave the way for talks by all Syrian parties on a political solution. It includes an immediate daily two-hour halt to fighting so humanitarian aid can reach suffering civilians, and unhindered access for humanitarian groups and the media.

Rice stressed that the Syrian agreement was only on the pullout of troops and equipment from cities and towns. She said Annan, who briefed a closed council meeting by videoconference from Geneva, is expecting details from the Syrian government "very shortly" on the other aspects of the plan.

Annan is sending a U.N. peacekeeping team and some staff to Damascus this week to continue preparations for a potential U.N. cease-fire monitoring mission.

Rice said Annan asked the Security Council to support the April 10 deadline and start urgently considering a potential U.N. monitoring mission, which would need council authorization. Rice said the Council expressed its full support.

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