Middle East

Syria links troop pullback from cities to 'security'

Syrian troops round up civilians in the village of Kafr Nabl in Idlib province (grab from video uploaded by activists on 30 March)
Image caption Troops remain inside several populated areas

Syrian troops will stay in residential areas of cities until "peace and security" prevail, the government says.

A foreign ministry spokesman made the announcement after the UN's peace mission to Syria called for troops to be withdrawn as a good faith gesture.

President Bashar al-Assad has nominally accepted a peace plan proposed by UN envoy Kofi Annan.

However fighting has continued between government and opposition forces, with 40 people reportedly killed on Friday.

The UN believes at least 9,000 people have died in the year-long revolt against Mr Assad's rule.

Many victims are said to have been civilians killed by government shelling.

'Stop first'

"The presence of the Syrian Arab army in Syrian cities is for defensive purposes [so] as to protect the civilians," Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi told state media.

"Once peace and security prevail, the army is to pull out."

On Friday, Mr Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the UN envoy expected President Assad to implement the peace plan immediately.

The plan "specifically asks the government to withdraw its troops, to cease using heavy weapons in populated centres", Mr Fawzi said.

"The very clear implication here is that the government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side and with the mediator."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said the peace plan, which was drawn up by the UN and the Arab League, was a "last chance" for Syria to stop the bloodshed.

Damascus, he told the Associated Press news agency in Istanbul, must accept the plan without delay.

"The regime must understand that if they miss this last chance, they will be facing strong measures by the international community," he said.

Istanbul is hosting a 60-nation gathering of the "Friends of the Syrian People" this weekend aimed at finding ways to help Syria's opposition.