The Syrian foreign ministry has announced that the army will withdraw from urban areas "once peace and security prevail" in an apparent rejection of a UN-backed peace plan that calls for an immediate ceasefire.
Jihad Makdissi, a foreign ministry spokesman, said in comments carried by state media on Saturday that "the presence of the Syrian Arab Army in Syrian cities is for defensive purposes [so] as to protect the civilians".
The comments came just hours after UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's office urged the government to stop military activities first as "the stronger party'' and in a "gesture of good faith".
Makdissi's remarks followed renewed violence in several parts of the country, with the Syrian Revolution General Commission reporting heavy shelling in the central city of Homs on al-Khalidiya neighbourhood for a 12th day.
There were also reports of clashes between government troops and armed rebels on Saturday in the northwestern province of Idlib and in the Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar.
Also in the capital, two people were reportedly killed and several others injured in Kafarsouseh neighbourhood after security forces opened fire at a funeral for a person killed a day earlier.
The reports of violence came ahead of Sunday's "Friends of the Syria" conference in the Turkish city of Istanbul, which will bring together 60 countries seeking to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.
'Deadline is now'
On Friday, Kofi Annan’s spokesperson said "the deadline is now" for government forces to halt attacks on opposition and implement peace plan.
"We expect him [President Bashar al-Assad] to implement this plan immediately,” Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva.
Removing any ambiguity about the ceasefire terms of the peace plan Assad has said he accepts, Fawzi said it was up to the Syrian military to move first.
The Annan plan "specifically asks the government to withdraw its troops, to cease using heavy weapons in populated centres", he 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."
The plan also requires the lightly-armed rebels to stop shooting.
Diplomats say Annan may ask for a UN monitoring mission to oversee its implementation.
'Bid to overthrow state'
The Syrian army, deployed heavily across the country, is far superior in terms of numbers and firepower than the rebel fighters, and has bombarded pockets of resistance in cities such as Homs and Idlib, with devastating consequences.
The unrest that has swept Syria since anti-regime protests first erupted in March last year has cost more than 9,000 lives, most of them civilians, according to the UN.
Makdissi said the bid to overthrow Syria's government was over, and that the battle now was to restore stability.
He said that the focus of Assad's government was also to "rally visions behind the reform process" and "prevent those who seek to sabotage reform".
An army withdrawal to bases would permit a safe return to mass, peaceful protest, say anti-government activists.
There was no sign of any risk-free demonstrations on Friday with the Syrian Revolution General Commission reporting the deaths of at least 55 people across the country.