BEIRUT – The deployment of U.N. truce monitors brought a lull in shelling of the Syrian opposition stronghold of Homs for a second day Sunday while President Bashar Assad’s troops kept up heavy attacks on other areas where observers were not present.
International envoy Kofi Annansaid he hoped that despite continued violations of the cease-fire he brokered, an expanded team of up to 300 observers – up from eight now on the ground – can help end 13 months of violence and lead to talks between Assad and the opposition.
Assad has used heavy weapons to try to crush the uprising against him, prompting some of his opponents to switch from peaceful protests to attacks on soldiers. The violence has left more than 9,000 people dead, according to the U.N. At least 12 civilians and five soldiers were killed Sunday, activists and state media said.
The U.N. Security Council approved on Saturday a larger observer mission than the 250 initially envisioned. The mission was set for at least 90 days, but the Council left it up to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to decide when it will be safe enough to deploy it.
It will be the first time the U.N. has sent an unarmed mission into a conflict zone, and Western diplomats warned the team will likely fail unless the Assad regime complies with the cease-fire.
The Syrian opposition and its Western supporters suspect the regime is largely paying lip service to Annan’s truce plan, in part to appease allies Russia and China while trying to dodge truce provisions that could threaten its grip, such as pulling tanks and troops from towns and allowing peaceful protests. The Syrian government hasn’t complied with those terms, prompting bitter complaints from the U.N. chief last week.
Some Syrian activists were skeptical about the U.N. mission, based on the performance of the advance team that arrived last week.
“This U.N. observers thing is a big joke,” said activist Mohammed Saeed. “Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes.”
Saeed is a resident of the Damascus suburb of Douma, which he said was attacked Sunday by government troops firing artillery and machine guns. He said loud explosions shook the city early, causing panic among residents. Some used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to take cover in basements and in lower floors of apartment buildings.
In contrast, the central city of Homs enjoyed a second day of relative quiet, after several weeks of relentless artillery barrages by regime forces that have devastated large tracts of rebel-held areas in the city.
Five observers visited Homs for the first time Saturday, walking along debris-strewn streets lined by gutted apartment buildings. Two monitors stayed on in the city after the rest of the team returned to Damascus, said team spokesman Neeraj Singh.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the continued presence of observers in Homs is deterring regime attacks.
Local activist Salim Qabani said a mortar shell landed in the Jouret al-Shayah district of Homs, setting a home on fire. But before the observer visit, shells struck the city every few minutes on some days.