UN observers suspend their patrols in Syria

U.N. observers welcome their comrades upon their return from al-Haffa, in northern Syria, to Damascus. Observers suspended their activities because of escalating violence in the country. Enlarge photo

BASSEM TELLAWI/Associated Press

U.N. observers welcome their comrades upon their return from al-Haffa, in northern Syria, to Damascus. Observers suspended their activities because of escalating violence in the country.

BEIRUT – U.N. observers suspended their patrols in Syria on Saturday because of a recent spike in violence, the strongest sign yet that an international peace plan was unraveling despite months of diplomatic efforts to prevent the country from plunging into civil war.

The U.N. observers have been the only working part of a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which the international community sees as its only hope to stop the bloodshed.

The plan called for the foreign monitors to monitor compliance with a cease-fire taking effect April 12, but they have become the most independent witnesses to the carnage on both sides as government and rebel forces have largely ignored the truce.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the U.N. mission chief, said intensifying clashes over the last 10 days were “posing significant risks” to the 300 unarmed observers spread out across the country and impeding their ability to carry out their mandate.

The observers will not leave the country but will remain in place and cease patrols, Mood said in a taped statement, adding the suspension would be reviewed on a daily basis. Teams have been stationed in some of Syria’s most dangerous cities, including Homs and Hama.

“The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides,” Mood said.

The decision came after weeks of escalating attacks, including reports of several mass killings that have left dozens dead.

The U.S. reiterated its call for the Assad regime to comply with the plan, “including the full implementation of a cease-fire.”

Underscoring the dangers, activists reported at least 50 people killed in clashes and shelling in several Syrian cities.

The peace plan’s near-collapse has increased pressure on the international community, including President Bashar Assad’s staunch allies Russia and China, to find another solution. But there has been little appetite for the type of military intervention that helped oust Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions have failed to stop the bloodshed.

Najib Ghadbian of the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said the concerns expressed by the U.N. mission could pressure Russia to allow more censure of Assad’s regime.

“They are really under pressure to say ‘OK, what’s next?’” he said. Are they going to continue to sabotage other ideas to protect civilians in Syria?”

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the Obama administration was consulting with allies about “next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition” in compliance with the U.N. resolutions setting up the peace plan. He didn’t give further details.

Opposition groups say more than 14,000 civilians and rebels have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. The initially peaceful protests seeking Assad’s ouster have morphed into an armed insurgency as his opponents take up weapons.

Rami Abdul-Rahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said more than 3,400 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen have been killed.

The Syrian government has been waging a fierce offensive through towns and villages nationwide for the last week, trying to pound out rebels by shelling urban areas with tanks and attack helicopters. Rebels also have attacked Syrian forces, mostly trying to burn out their tanks.

The Observatory said more than 50 people were killed in clashes and shelling in towns close to Damascus, in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, in the seaside province of Latakia, the northern provinces of Idlib and Deir al-Zour and the southern province of Daraa.

Those included 12 people, including a man, his wife and child, who died during overnight government shelling in the Damascus suburb of Duma and seven killed by a mortar shell that ripped apart a bakery in Homs, according to Abdul-Rahman.

Rebels appeared to kill an accused regime collaborator in an amateur video that was uploaded Saturday, repeatedly shooting his lifeless body.

There was no way of verifying government or activist claims because Syria does not allow reporters work independently. With U.N. observers now grounded, not even partial, independent confirmation of the deaths was available.

Syria’s state news agency also said their forces killed a top al-Qaeda fighter on Saturday. They accused Walid Ahmed al-Ayish of organizing suicide car bombings in Damascus over the last few months.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.