Syria: UN ceasefire monitors greeted by reports of shelling

A HANDFUL of soldiers in blue caps put a tentative United Nations presence at the heart of the Syrian crisis yesterday, predicting success for their mission to stabilise a shaky four-day-old ceasefire even as shells were still falling.

Charged with overseeing an end to 13 months of violence, the unarmed multinational squad of six professed their optimism.

“We are going to organise 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.

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“All peacekeepers are optimistic,” he added when asked if he was hopeful an observer mission could cement a truce marked by persistent, sporadic violence.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Brussels, called on Damascus to ensure the observers are not impeded in any way in their work.

“It is the Syrian government’s responsibility to guarantee freedom of access, freedom of movement. They should be allowed to freely move to any places where they will be able to observe this cessation of violence.”

He called the ceasefire “very fragile,” but said it was essential that it hold so that an “inclusive political dialogue can continue.” He said opposition forces “should also fully co-operate”.

The UN plans to increase the advance team to 30 people, all of them unarmed, Mr Ban said, adding that the Security Council is expected to authorise a formal monitoring team of about 250 people later this week.

UN human rights investigators said yesterday they had received reports of shelling and arrests by Syrian forces since the ceasefire began, as well as executions of soldiers captured by rebel forces, although the violence was generally less than before the UN-brokered truce came into effect last Thursday.

Activists trying to topple president Bashar al-Assad reported four people killed by shelling in Homs and four killed in Idlib on Monday in a gun battle between troops and army defectors. Two more were killed in Hama when their car came under fire. Damascus said “terrorist groups” carried out that overnight attack.

The army also shelled targets in Homs for the third day in a row, activists said, despite a promise to UN peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw from cities and silence heavy weapons.

Tarek Badrakhan, an activist from the battered and almost deserted Homs district of Khaldiyeh, said the regime resumed its intense bombardment of the district early yesterday.

“The shelling hasn’t stopped for one minute since this morning. There are buildings on fire right now,” he said via Skype.

Mr Badrakhan and other activists said the army appeared to be pushing to take control of the last rebel-held districts in Homs and was pounding Khaldiyeh from three directions. He said half of the nearby district of Bayada fell under the army’s control on Sunday night. Troops were trying to storm Qarabees and Jouret al-Shayah but the Free Syrian Army is repelling them, he said, referring to the army defectors fighting the government.

The UN human rights team reported a “deteriorating humanitarian situation” and said it was “seriously concerned” over the shelling in Homs and use of heavy weaponry in other areas.