Syria troops 'begin withdrawal'

Syrian troops have begun pulling out from some calm cities and headed back to their bases a week ahead of a deadline to implement an international ceasefire plan, a government official said.

The claim could not immediately be verified and activists near the capital Damascus denied troops were leaving their area. They said the day regime forces withdraw from streets, Syria will witness massive protests that will overthrow the government.

"Forces began withdrawing to outside calm cities and are returning to their bases, while in tense areas, they are pulling out to the outskirts," the government official said in Damascus without saying when the withdrawal began.

President Bashar Assad agreed just days ago to an April 10 deadline to implement international envoy Kofi Annan's truce plan. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities and observe a ceasefire. Rebel fighters are immediately to follow by ceasing violence.

Khaled al-Omar, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, denied that any withdrawal was under way in his area.

"This is impossible. I can see a checkpoint from my window," he said via Skype, adding the regime forces were still in the main square.

Earlier in the day, opposition activists charged that the regime was racing to crush opponents ahead of the ceasefire deadline by carrying out intense raids, arrests and shelling.

Opposition activists have blasted Mr Annan's plan as too little, too late and are particularly angry that it does not call for President Assad to leave power - the central demand of the uprising.

They suspect Assad will manipulate the plan and use it to stall for time while his forces continue to crack down.

Western leaders have cautiously accepted the April 10 deadline while pointing out that President Assad has broken previous promises and insisting the regime must be judged by its actions.