, DAMASCUS, Mar 31 – Syria declared Saturday it had defeated those seeking to bring down the regime while reiterating support for a UN-Arab peace plan, as its troops reportedly shelled rebels in the flashpoint city of Homs.
Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi, cited by the official SANA news agency, also said that Syrian troops would withdraw from urban areas once they had been stabilised.
The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed in the crackdown by forces of President Bashar al-Assad on an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that began a year ago with pro-democracy protests.
“The battle to topple the state is over, and the battle to solidify stability… and move on towards a renewed Syria has begun,” Makdisi said in an interview originally carried on state television.
The spokesman said the Assad government’s focus was also to “rally visions behind the reform process” and “prevent those who seek to sabotage reform.”
Troops would withdraw from urban areas once they were secured, he said, adding UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan acknowledged there were “illegitimate armed elements within the opposition”.
“The presence of the Syrian Arab army in Syrian cities is for defensive purposes (so) as to protect the civilians,” Makdisi was quoted as saying by SANA.
“Once peace and security prevail, the army is to pull out,” he added.
SANA said that Makdisi made the appearance on television in a bid to explain to Syrians why the government had this week accepted Annan’s six-point peace plan.
Annan appealed for an immediate ceasefire on Friday, as monitors said at least 39 people — all but seven of them civilians — were killed across Syria as security forces sought to crush the popular uprising.
Shells rained down on Homs on Friday, as thousands of people took to the streets across Syria to protest against what they regard as the inaction of Arab governments dealing with the crisis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that the Homs neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh, one of the main rebel bastions, came under renewed rocket fire from the military again on Saturday morning.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to hold talks on Saturday with Gulf Arab leaders aimed at putting pressure on Syria’s regime to stop its bloody protest crackdown.
Clinton is expected to hold the talks in Riyadh before a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul on Sunday which ministers from dozens of Arab and Western countries are due to attend.
But there are differences over how to help the Syrian people in their bid for democracy.
Saudi Arabia and its neighbour Qatar have called for arming the opposition, which includes the Free Syrian Army made up of Syrian military defectors.
An Arab League summit in Baghdad this week rejected the option of arming any side, and called on all parties to engage in a “serious national dialogue.”
On Friday, Clinton discussed with Saudi leaders efforts to send more humanitarian aid into Syria, and support opposition efforts to present a united and inclusive political vision for the future.
They also discussed tightening the array of US, European, Canadian, Arab and Turkish sanctions on Syria, a US State Department official said.
The United States and Turkey have agreed on the need to provide communications and other non-lethal aid to the opposition.
In Washington, the Treasury Department announced it was targeting Defence Minister Dawoud Rajiha as well as the army’s deputy chief of staff and the head of presidential security, in its latest round of sanctions against Damascus.
The United Nations is making plans for a Syria ceasefire observer mission if hostilities are halted, but the Damascus government has not even approved sending officials for talks, UN officials said.
The preliminary planning for the force is part of contacts between Annan and Assad’s government.
A UN official in New York said a minimum of 250 observers would be needed if the Syrian government halted its offensive on protesters and gave its agreement for the international force.
Annan’s peace plan calls for a commitment to stop all armed violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, media access to all areas affected by the fighting, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and release of arbitrarily detained people.