Beirut: Fighting and government shelling stopped in Syria's central city of Homs on Saturday and troops hid tanks in advance of a visit by UN ceasefire observers who toured the area, activists said.
An advance team of seven UN monitors has been in Syria for about a week to monitor an internationally brokered cease fire that went into effect on April 12.
The team has visited several restive areas including the southern province of Daraa and some of the suburbs of the capital Damascus. But their visit to Homs is particularly important as the city, Syria's third largest, along with its hinterland are among the regions hardest hit by the violence that has left more than 9,000 people dead over the past 13 months, according to the UN.
A municipal official in Homs said the team met with the governor in the city, then went out on a tour. They official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
The United Nations hopes to have 30 observers in the country next week to monitor the tenuous ceasefire between regime troops and the opposition, and the Security Council reached a tentative agreement on Friday night on plans for the deployment of up to a total of 300. France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud said the text, negotiated over many hours, would be sent to capitals overnight for consideration and the council would meet on Saturday for a vote.
The UN advance team did not did not venture out on Friday, the day when anti-government protests are usually held after the noon prayers, in a blow to the protesters' hopes. The team's head, Colonel Ahmed Himiche, said they did not go out "because we don't want to be used as a tool for escalating the situation”.
Activists say Syrian troops fired tear gas and bullets that day at thousands of protesters who spilled out of mosques after noon prayers, while the state media reported that bombs and shootings killed 17 soldiers.
In contrast, much of Syria was quiet on Saturday, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Homs was peaceful for the first time in more than a week.
"Until now I have not received any report of violence, including the city of Homs that was witnessing daily shelling," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory. "It is quiet until this moment, unlike the past days."
Salim Qabani, an activist based in the Homs province, said troops hid armoured vehicles. He said tanks were pulled off the streets and into a police base. "We heard that the observers are coming to Homs today," he said.
Qabani added that regime forces hid nine tanks in trenches in nearby Qusair. Rebels hold parts of the town, which is near the border with Lebanon and has witnessed daily shelling over the past week.
The Observatory said troops were detaining people in the southern town of Sahm al-Golan where a large roadside bomb killed 10 soldiers on Friday.
The state news agency, meanwhile, reported that "armed terrorists" blew up an oil pipeline that carries crude oil from one of the fields of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour. SANA did not give further details but there have been similar attacks on pipelines in the past months.
First Published: Saturday, April 21, 2012, 14:52