Syria has accepted a U.N.-sponsored peace plan, international envoy Kofi Annan said on Tuesday, as troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad raided rebel forces who have taken refuge across the border in Lebanon.
The United States reacted sceptically to Annan's announcement, saying it would judge Assad's sincerity in agreeing to the peace plan by what he did and not by what he said, given his record of over-promising and under-delivering.
Assad made a rare foray into the heartland of Syria's year-old uprising, visiting a former rebel stronghold in the city of Homs that his forces had overrun after weeks of shelling and gunfire, apparently to make the point that he can now tour the streets of the once bitterly fought-over district.
Syrian state television showed a video of Assad, wearing an open-necked shirt with a blue suit, walking casually in the devastated streets of the Baba Amr district and talking to groups of supporters and troops in combat gear.
Baba Amr was an emblem of opposition and rebel army defiance until it was reclaimed by government forces early this month after 26 days of heavy bombardment which opposition activists said was totally indiscriminate.
Life will return to normal in Baba Amr, better than it was before, Assad said.
Activists say hundreds of civilians and opponents of Assad were killed in Baba Amr in February by shelling and snipers.
He thinks he won and scored a great victory, said opposition activist Saif Hurria, speaking by telephone from Homs. He wants to show the world he defeated and put down a revolution. But ... it seems he can't even release the video until he has left Homs. That is not control.
Opposition supporter Abu Jaafar said Assad's appearance in Homs was giving the green light to kill like this again.
Annan, who represents the United Nations and the Arab League, said through a spokesman that Assad had accepted the basic terms of a peace plan which calls for national dialogue but does not hinge on his leaving office.
However, Annan said earlier on a visit to China that this is going to be a long difficult task.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted coolly. Given Assad's history of over-promising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions, she told reporters in Washington.
We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says, she said, calling on him to order his forces to stop firing and start withdrawing from populated areas.
Western and Arab leaders are due to meet in Istanbul on April 1 to discuss a political transition, and Clinton joined the Arab League and Turkey in pressing various wings of the Syrian opposition to unite.
They must be able to clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and protecting the rights of all Syrians, she said. We are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision in Istanbul.
A meeting of Syrian opposition groups that aimed to show they can unite to form an alternative to Assad was marred on Tuesday when a veteran dissident and Kurdish delegates walked out, saying their views were not being heard.
In a session on Monday, the People's Assembly of Syria called on Assad to postpone parliamentary elections set for May 7 to allow time for what it called the consolidation of comprehensive reforms and the outcome of a national dialogue.
Assad has used the army to crush protests against his 12-year rule but his Alawite Muslim minority and its allies still have substantial popular support in the country.
Annan said his plan calls for withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, humanitarian assistance being allowed in unimpeded, release of prisoners, freedom of movement and access for journalists to go in and out.
The United Nations estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's upheaval over the past year, U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry told the Security Council. Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
Opposition activists reported several civilian casualties in shooting late Monday and overnight in the cities of Idlib and Homs, in fighting between government forces and rebels.
Video posted on the internet by activists showed thick black smoke and blazing buildings in a district of Homs. There were wounded and bleeding men and women lying in a street.
Syrian troops advanced into north Lebanon, destroying farm buildings in pursuit of Syrian rebels, residents said. Lebanese security sources denied that the Syrian troops had stepped onto Lebanese territory.
The border is poorly marked. Incursions have been reported in the past months without triggering Lebanese protests.
Security appears to be fraying in many parts of Syria despite repeated army offensives to regain rebellious territory. Activists say the government is struggling to hold such areas for long, with rebels swiftly re-emerging, as they have in other parts of Homs.
Western and Arab governments which would be glad to see Assad ousted are wary of what might replace the 40-year-old family dynasty and its ruthless but predictable police state.
Russia and China have shielded Assad from Security Council condemnation by vetoing two Western-backed resolutions over the bloodshed, but approved a Security Council statement this week endorsing Annan's mission.
Chinese Prime Wen Jiabao told Annan in Beijing that the efforts to seek a solution to the Syrian crisis are at a critical juncture. We do believe that your mediation efforts will lead to progress in seeking a solution to the Syrian issue.
The opposition has so far rejected Assad's calls for dialogue saying it is too late. The crackdown has angered Arab countries including former allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which favour arming the rebels.
(This story corrected U.N. envoy's name to Robert Serry)
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Istanbul, Mariam Karouny in Baghdad, Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul, Lou Charbonneau at the UN; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by David Stamp)