Syrian army pushes north as clashes continue near Turkey's border

Human-rights group accuse Assad regime of war crimes as the number of UN ceasefire observers in the country grows to 31.
Syrian soldiers man a checkpoint in Homs yesterday. UN observers were also in Homs and having a "calming effect", but the head of the UN mission to Syria yesterday admitted the ceasefire was "shaky" and not holding.
Syrian soldiers man a checkpoint in Homs yesterday. UN observers were also in Homs and having a "calming effect", but the head of the UN mission to Syria yesterday admitted the ceasefire was "shaky" and not holding.

BEIRUT // Syrian government forces clashed with army defectors in the country's north yesterday, causing casualties and further inflaming an area near the Turkish border where rebel fighters have tried to seize territory, activists said.

Syria's persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a UN team of observers to salvage a truce that started to unravel almost as soon as it was supposed to begin on April 12.

Human Rights Watch accused President Bashar Al Assad's regime of war crimes during an offensive ahead of the truce, further throwing into doubt his commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Despite the violence, the international community still sees the peace plan as the last chance to prevent Syria from falling into civil war - in part because no country appears to want to intervene militarily.

The mission spokesman, Neeraj Singh, said 31 UN military observers were now in Syria. Observers have been posted in the cities of Idlib, Hama, Homs and Dara, he said. Amateur videos posted online showed them in parts of Homs and the town of Binnish in the north. In a video from Homs, two white UN Land Cruisers are stopped near a decomposing body near piles of rubbish. Gunshots are heard nearby. The veracity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.

Syria's state news agency said the observers visited parts of Hama in central Syria.

The two sides have blamed each other for thwarting the truce, with Mr Al Assad's forces trying to repress demonstrators calling for him to step down and an armed rebellion that has sprung up as peaceful protests have proved ineffective against his forces. The UN has said that 9,000 people have died since the uprising began in March 2011.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 members of the Syrian security forces, including two officers, were killed in an ambush by rebels in Al Raai. It said two army defectors also died in the clashes. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

Syria's official news agency said a member of the country's security forces was killed and three others wounded in a roadside bomb explosion in the central province of Hama. Sana said the bombing on a road between the towns of Tibet Al Imam and Al Latamneh was carried out by a "terrorist" group - a phrase authorities use for rebels fighting the regime.

In its report, Human Rights Watch detailed violence committed by government forces in northern Syria in a two-week period leading up to the ceasefire, bringing into question whether Mr Al Assad simply used the time ahead of the truce to tighten his grip on power.

The New York-based international rights group said troops killed at least 95 civilians and burnt or destroyed hundreds of houses as the UN special envoy, Kofi Annan, was negotiating with the Syrian government to end the fighting. In a 38-page report, the group documented summary executions, killing of civilians and arbitrary detentions and torture that it said qualify as war crimes.

"While diplomats argued over details of Annan's peace plan, Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another," said Anna Neistat, the associate director for programmes and emergencies at Human Rights Watch.

"Everywhere we went, we saw burnt and destroyed houses, shops and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the ceasefire to cause harm," she said.

Published: May 3, 2012 04:00 AM

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