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U.S. again releases satellite images of Syria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States released satellite images on Friday that it said showed Syria has artillery poised to hit residential areas and has moved some forces from one town to another despite calls for a withdrawal.

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, posted the commericial satellite images on Facebook in what seemed an effort to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pull back forces as called for in a peace plan devised by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Annan is trying to end more than a year of violence in which Assad's forces have sought to crush pro-democracy demonstrations across Syria.

While Ford said Syrian forces had indeed withdrawn from some areas, he cited media reports that they had fired artillery at residential areas in several towns over the last two days and had carried out "arrest sweeps" in Damascus suburbs.

"This is not the reduction in offensive Syrian government security operations that all agree must be the first step for the Annan initiative to succeed," Ford, who left Damascus when the U.S. embassy was closed in February, said on Facebook.

"The regime and the Syrian people should know that we are watching. The regime cannot hide the truth," he added.

Annan's plan, accepted by Assad two weeks ago, calls for Syria to "immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers."

Annan has set April 10 as a deadline for the Syrian troop withdrawal and April 12 a ceasefire.

On Thursday, Annan said he was told by Damascus that troop withdrawals were underway from Idlib, as well as Zabadani and Deraa. But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday the conflict was worsening and attacks on civilian areas persisted.

At least 27 Syrian soldiers, rebels and civilians were killed in violence on Friday, opposition activists said, four days before the troop pullback deadline.

It is not easy for an untrained eye to see the details in the satellite images Ford posted on Friday on the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/notes/us-embassy-damascus/a-message-from-ambassador-ford/10150655544736938. A U.S. official who asked not to be identified said the images were provided by a commercial satellite.

The images were marked with arrows and tank symbols that Ford said indicated the presence of armored vehicles.

Ford said the images showed the withdrawal of tanks from Dael in Deraa province as well as from Taftanaz, a village east of Idlib city in Idlib province.

However, Ford said "the Syrian government simply moved some armored vehicles out of Taftanaz to the nearby town of Zirdana."

Other images carried arrow markings and a caption that said the Syrian government had "kept artillery units near residential areas" such as in Homs and Zabadani "where they could again fire upon them."

It was the second time Ford has posted satellite photos to try to show proof of Syria targeting residential neighborhoods. The earlier images were released on February 10.

Forces loyal to Assad have killed more than 9,000 people during the unrest, according to a U.N. tally, while Syria says 6,044 have died, including 2,566 soldiers and police.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed)

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