UN to send observers to monitor fragile Syria ceasefire

Russia had accused western states of wanting to carry out a Libyan-style military intervention to topple the Syrian regime.

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HOMS, SYRIA // UN observers will be sent to Syria after the Security Council yesterday unanimously approved their mission to monitor a fragile and failing ceasefire.

Two previous efforts to pass UN resolutions on the crisis had been blocked by Moscow and Beijing, key allies of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

Russia, a major arms supplier to Damascus, had accused western states of wanting to carry out a Libyan-style military intervention to topple Mr Al Assad's regime.

Yesterday's unanimous vote came as efforts to halt more than a year of violence continued to fray, particularly in Homs, where rebel-held neighbourhoods came under artillery and mortar bombardment.

Explosions and intermittent small-arms fire sounded across the central Syrian city, 160 kilometres north of Damascus, throughout the afternoon. Opposition activists said shells landed in Jouret Al Shayah and Qarabees but caused no casualties, with most of the civilian population already having fled for safety.

Soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles, remained in the streets in areas under government control, while armed rebels manned sandbagged checkpoints at the entrance to zones held by the opposition Free Syrian Army.

The UN resolution, backed by Russia and China, authorised the deployment of an advance team of 30 unarmed UN observers to Syria and demanded "all parties" immediately cease violence.

It called for the implementation of the peace plan created by the UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, a six-point programme including a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from residential areas.

Both the Syrian government and opposition groups have backed the plan and said they are implementing it, but each has already accused the other of violating the terms of the deal.

"We want an end to this violence so if UN observers come and help achieve that, then it will be welcome," said a resident of Homs, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With blasts rocking the city at five- to 10-minute intervals, he and others doubted the mission would succeed.

"The ceasefire has already failed. There is no ceasefire. They have not stopped the snipers. They have not stopped the shelling," said an opposition activist. "We are not talking about minor, isolated incidents of shooting; we are talking about a continuing military assault by the regime"

"The ceasefire is just something they talk about on the news. It's not taking place on the ground," he said.

State-run media accused "armed terrorist groups" of escalating attacks yesterday, reporting that gunmen had killed at least three security officers, burnt a medical centre in Latakia and attacked a busload of civilians in Saqreb.

Sana, the official news agency, also said one civilian was killed and a dozen more wounded after firing three rocket-propelled grenades in the Zahra neighbourhood of Homs.

Nonetheless, the rate of casualties does appear to have dropped since the ceasefire went into effect on Thursday. Violence had spiralled in the lead-up to the ceasefire deadline and, while it has continued, activists say the death toll has dropped.

"It is far from perfect, but it is an improvement to have five or 13 killed each day instead of 40 or 50 or more," he said. "We hope it is moving in the right direction and that things will get better."

No firm timetable has been announced for the UN team's arrival, but a spokesman for Mr Annan said they were on standby and would be sent as soon as possible.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, is to report on their initial work by Thursday and detail how 200 more monitors will be deployed in support of the mission.

The reinforced monitoring team would require authorisation by a second UN resolution, as well as agreement by the Syrian government. Sana yesterday reported that negotiations over the mission had not been concluded.

Yesterday's resolution called on the Syrian government to allow the monitors "unhindered" access to any part of the country, and said it is the government's "primary responsibility" to ensure their safety. Its calls on the government to protect Syrian individuals who speak to the monitors from any retaliation.

In addition, the Security Council warned that it will consider "further steps as appropriate" in the event the ceasefire and other terms of the peace plan are not met.

More than 9,000 civilians and defecting soldiers have been killed by security forces since the uprising began in March, according to the UN. Syrian officials say more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed in the same period.


* Joe Lauria contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York