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Syria accepts Annan peace plan, but clashes continue

Syria accepted a cease-fire drawn up by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan on Tuesday, but the diplomatic breakthrough was swiftly overshadowed by intense clashes between government soldiers and rebels that sent bullets flying into Lebanon.

Opposition members accuse President Bashar Assad of agreeing to the plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent. And the conflict just keeps getting deadlier: The U.N. said the death toll has grown to more than 9,000, a sobering assessment of a devastating year-old crackdown on the uprising that shows no sign of ending.

Annan's announcement that Syria had accepted his peace plan was met with deep skepticism.

"We are not sure if it's political maneuvering or a sincere act," said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "We have no trust in the current regime. ... We have to see that they have stopped killing civilians."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad's decision to accept the plan was only a first step. "We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its practical actions, not by its often empty words," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad must act quickly to convince the world he is serious about peace by "silencing his guns and allowing humanitarian aid to get in."

On a two-day visit to Beijing, Annan told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that he faced a long and difficult task in his mission to end fighting in Syria, but global cooperation with China and other countries was the only way to do it.

"I indicated that I had received a response from the Syrian government and will be making it public today, which is positive, and we hope to work with them to translate it into action," Annan told reporters in Beijing after meeting Wen.

"I have a six-point plan which the Security Council has endorsed, dealing with issues of political discussions, withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance being allowed in unimpeded, release of prisoners, freedom of movement and access to journalists to go in and out," he said. "So we will need to see how we move ahead and implement this agreement that they have accepted."

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However, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, expressed skepticism about the development, saying it would be best to look for action, not words from Assad.

Ford told lawmakers in Washington that he had no information beyond the press reports of the development.

"We will see now in the days ahead what exactly Assad has said,'' Ford said at a hearing on human rights in Syria.

The diplomat, who left Syria last month because of the violence there, added: "I have to tell you that my own experience with him is you want to see steps on the ground and not just take his word at face value."

The United Nations said on Tuesday that more than 9,000 civilians have been killed in the Syrian government's year-long assault on protesters opposed to Assad, an increase of nearly 1,000 over its previous estimate.

"Violence on the ground has continued unabated, resulting in scores of people killed and injured," Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the 15-nation Security Council.

"Credible estimates put the total death toll since the beginning of the uprising one year ago to more than 9,000," he said. "It is urgent to stop the fighting and prevent a further violent escalation of the conflict."

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, welcomed the government's acceptance of a U.N. peace plan, a member of the Syrian National Council said.

Bassma Kodmani told The Associated Press by telephone that "we welcome all acceptance by the regime of a plan that could allow the repression and bloodbath to stop."

She is a Paris-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

"We hope that we can move toward a peace process," she said.

Incursion into Lebanon
Meanwhile, Syrian troops advanced into north Lebanon on Tuesday, destroying farm buildings and clashing with Syrian rebels who had taken refuge there, residents told Reuters.

"More than 35 Syrian soldiers came across the border and started to destroy houses," said Abu Ahmed, 63, a resident of the rural mountain area of al-Qaa.

Another resident told Reuters that the soldiers, some traveling in armored personnel vehicles, fired rocket-propelled grenades and exchanged heavy machine-gun fire with rebels.

Regional English-language news channel Al-Jazeera has previously reported an escalation in tensions along the border. It said residents claimed the Syrian military planted landmines close to inhabited areas while, in early October, a Syrian army tank reportedly fired shells at Lebanese military targets inside Lebanon's borders.

Any movement into Lebanese territory would escalate a conflict that already is spiraling toward civil war. There are concerns the violence could cause a broader conflagration by sucking in neighboring countries.

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Annan called for Beijing's support and advice, according to a pool report.

"And I know you've already been helpful but this is going to be a long difficult task and I am sure that together we can make a difference," Annan told Wen.

Annan's trip to China followed a similar one in Russia, where he asked Moscow to back his mission to end fighting in Syria.

Russia and China have shielded Assad from U.N. Security Council condemnation by vetoing two Western-backed resolutions over the bloodshed, but approved a Security Council statement this week endorsing Annan's mission.

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However, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Syrian people, not foreign powers, should decide their own fate.

Russia has said Annan has its full support and that his mission could be the last chance to avoid a protracted and bloody civil war but would need more time.

"I would like the decision on the fate of the Syrian state, society, political system and people to be taken not by the respected leaders of world powers, even by those acting in good faith, but by the Syrian people themselves, by all the levels of the Syrian society," Medvedev said at the end of a nuclear security summit in Seoul.

Reuters and's Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report. Follow Alastair Jamieson on Twitter.

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