Shelling, shaky truce challenge UN few in Syria
Beirut: A handful of soldiers in blue caps put a tentative United Nations presence at the heart of the Syrian crisis on Monday, predicting success for their mission to stabilize a shaky four-day-old ceasefire even as shells continued to fall.
Charged with overseeing an end to 13 months of violence, the unarmed multinational squad of six professed their optimism.
"We are going to organize ourselves in order to be ready to do our task as soon as possible," the leader of the advance guard, Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, told reporters at a Damascus hotel before meeting Syrian officials in the capital.
"All peacekeepers are optimistic," he added when asked if he was hopeful an observer mission that will be expanded to 250 could cement a truce marked by persistent, sporadic violence.
Activists trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad reported four people killed in the city of Idlib on Monday in a gunbattle between troops and Army defectors. They said two were killed in the city of Hama when their car came under fire.
The army shelled targets in the battered city of Homs for the third day in a row, despite its promise to UN peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw from cities and silence heavy weapons.
Amateur video posted on the Internet at the weekend showed an army mortar crew encamped in countryside with mortars of various calibers, calmly firing rounds at some unseen target.
Security forces in armored vehicles stormed the village of Khattab in Hama province and carried out raids on Monday, the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, and dozens of people were detained.
Activists said the army on Monday once again shelled the Bayada and Khalidiya districts in Homs with heavy mortars. A video posted by them on YouTube showed explosions followed by clouds of smoke and dust.
A previous monitoring mission, by the Arab League, which has suspended Syria`s membership and called for Assad to step aside, ended in failure in January after a just a month. Dozens of unarmed Arab observers complained that a government crackdown on protesters and rebels had made their mission too dangerous.
On Sunday, as Homs was under fire, rebels attacked a police station in Aleppo province hours before the UN advance party arrived in Damascus. Activists said three people were killed by shelling Homs, which has become the emblem of the revolt.
"Early this morning we saw a helicopter and a spotter plane fly overhead. Ten minutes later, there was heavy shelling," said Walid al-Fares in Homs. Another resident said government loyalists were using heavy machineguns to shoot into the area.
Syria blames a year of escalating violence on "terrorists" seeking to topple Assad and has denied independent journalists access to the country, making it impossible to verify reports.
State news agency SANA on Sunday said the authorities "will prevent the armed terrorist groups from continuing their criminal aggressions against the army and law enforcement forces and citizens, which hysterically escalated since announcing the halt of military operations".
Although violence has persisted throughout the ceasefire, there has been a significant drop in the daily death toll in fighting which had often been killing more than 100 people a day this year.
On Saturday, 14 people were killed in the violence, the Observatory said. The state news agency SANA said "armed terrorists" killed five people in ambushes around the country.
The United Nations Security Council voted on Saturday to authorize the deployment of up to 30 unarmed observers in the first resolution on Syria the 15-nation council has managed to approve unanimously since the uprising erupted in March 2011.
Russia and China have previously blocked Western attempts to pass Security Council resolutions on Syria, notably two resolutions condemning the Assad government.
The advance mission will "try to make concrete proposals by the 18th of April for an official observer mission", UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told UN radio in Geneva.
The UN has had a peacekeeping mission on a small slice of Syrian territory facing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since the 1970s. But the 1,040 troops of the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) and a few score UNTSO officers (UN Truce Supervision Organisation) have no role in Syria`s internal crisis.
Saturday`s Security Council resolution condemned the "widespread violations of human rights by the Syrian authorities, as well as any human rights abuses by armed groups".
The text included a vague warning to Damascus, saying the council would "assess the implementation of this resolution and to consider further steps as appropriate".
"The Syrian government must ensure that the monitoring team has freedom of movement and access, and it must not obstruct communication between the monitors and headquarters," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The UN estimates Assad`s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the uprising. Syrian authorities say foreign-backed militants have killed more than 2,500 soldiers and police.
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