BEIRUT: U.N. cease-fire monitors toured a rebel-held town in central Syria Sunday with army defectors, while government troops pounded a Damascus suburb with artillery and heavy machine guns, activists said.
The shelling in Douma highlighted the need for more monitors a day after the Security Council voted to expand the number of U.N. observers from 30 to 300 in hopes of salvaging an international truce plan marred by continued fighting between the military and the rebels.
An eight-member team is already on the ground in Syria, and since Thursday has visited flashpoints of the 13-month-long conflict. Fighting generally halts temporarily when the observers are present in an area, but there has been a steady stream of reports of violence from towns and regions where they have not yet gone.
“This U.N. observers thing is a big joke,” said Douma-based activist Mohammad Saeed. “Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes.”
His comments reflect a widespread lack of faith among many Syrians in international envoy Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan for ending the violence in Syria and launching talks between President Bashar Assad and those trying to oust him. Syria’s opposition and its Western supporters suspect Assad is largely paying lip service to the truce since full compliance – including withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from populated areas and allowing peaceful demonstrations – could quickly sweep him from power.
A previous observer team, dispatched by the Arab League at the start of the year, withdrew after a month after failing to halt the fighting.
Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said U.N. monitors visited Sunday the central city of Hama, where they met with the governor, while opposition activists said observers visited Rastan, a rebel-held town south of Hama. An amateur video posted online showed two white U.N. vehicles driving in Rastan accompanied by a red pick up truck with the words “Free Army” written on it.
Other videos showed two U.N. monitors wearing blue helmets and body armor touring Rastan along with officers from the rebel Free Syrian Army who point to damaged buildings and a large crowd of people shouting “Bye Bye Bashar!” and “The people want to topple the regime.”
Saeed, the activist, said two people had been killed Sunday by indiscriminate firing in Douma, which was the scene of intense clashes between rebels and security forces before the U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect more than a week ago.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group with a network of activists on the ground, confirmed the deaths. It said four soldiers were also killed when a roadside bomb hit an armored personnel carrier in the town later Sunday.
The Observatory also reported that security forces killed three people in the northern province of Idlib and one person in the village of Hteita outside Damascus when troops opened fire from a checkpoint.It was not immediately clear what prompted the attack on Douma. Saeed said loud explosions that shook the city early Sunday caused panic among residents, some of whom used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to take cover in basements and in lower floors of apartment buildings.
Reports from a Tunisian daily, meanwhile, said three Tunisians who joined the Free Syrian Army were killed in fighting last week, after being smuggled into the country from Turkey. Assabah newspaper said the three were killed in fighting in Homs and Idlib, adding that another two were arrested before reaching Idlib. There was no immediate comment from the Tunisian Foreign Ministry.
The Security Council approved a resolution Saturday expanding the U.N. observer mission from 30 to 300 members, initially for 90 days. The expanded force is meant to shore up the cease-fire that officially took effect 10 days ago, but has failed to halt the violence that the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011.
Annan Sunday welcomed the vote, calling it a “pivotal moment” in the process of stabilizing the country and urged all Syrians to uphold the cease-fire.
“The government in particular must desist from the use of heavy weapons and ... withdraw such weapons and armed units from population centers,” he said.
He added that the presence of observers would help create the conditions conducive to launching the much-needed political process and called on the Syrian government and the opposition “to prepare to engage in such a process as a matter of utmost priority.”
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has accused Assad of violating the truce, and said Saturday that “the gross violations of the fundamental rights of the Syrian people must stop at once.” Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks.
The official SANA news agency said Sunday that an officer had been killed and 42 others wounded in a roadside bomb explosion that targeted their bus Sunday in northern Syria. Two other explosives were dismantled on the spot on the Raqqa-Aleppo highway, SANA said.
In Cairo, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, Bassma Kodmani, called for the number of U.N. monitors in Syria to be raised to at least 3,000, saying the current 300 approved by the U.N. would not be enough. She told reporters after a meeting with Arab League chief Nabil Elarabi that Syrian opposition factions would meet in Cairo on May 15 at the League headquarters to try and unify their ranks.
The U.N. eight-member advance team has already visited the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, the southern province of Daraa, and the battered opposition stronghold of Homs. The monitors have not visited Douma yet.
Activists said Homs was relatively calm for the second consecutive day Sunday. But the Observatory said six people had been killed in the province – three of them in gunfire during raids in search of fugitives in farms near the town of Talbiseh and three others in gunbattles in the Khaldiyeh and Ghouta districts of Homs.
Five monitors who toured Homs Saturday encountered unusually calm streets after weeks of shelling, and activists said it was the first quiet day in months. Two observers stayed behind in Homs to keep monitoring the city, after the rest of the team left that evening. Activist Salim Qabani, based in Homs province, said Sunday there was none of the heavy shelling of the previous days. But he said a mortar shell landed in the Jouret al-Shayah district that set a home on fire.
Syria keeps tight restrictions on foreign and local media and reports of shelling and casualties cannot be independently confirmed.
In other developments Sunday, human rights lawyer Anwar Bunni said blogger Razan Ghazzawi had been among eight Syrian activists arrested in February to be charged and brought before a military court.
“The eight activists will face military justice for publishing and distributing forbidden tracts under Clause 148 of the military penal code,” Bunni said, adding that if convicted they could be jailed for up to five years.
He said they appeared in court Saturday.
The eight were among around 15 activists arrested by the security services in Damascus on Feb, 16 at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, headed by journalist Mazen Darwish, who was among those detained.