Last updated: April 15, 2012 11:57 am

Syrian forces attack as UN sends monitors

The Syrian government shelled the central city of Homs hours before a UN peacekeeping team was due to arrive on Sunday, activists said, stoking fears that the country’s shaky three day old truce is unravelling.

Government forces pounded Syria’s third biggest city for a second consecutive day, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killing at least three people. They also shelled an area near the Turkish border, where defected soldiers were thought to be present the observatory said.

Rebels were reported to have attacked a police station in rural Aleppo governorate in northern Syria, as state-run media said the government would confront the “terrorist groups” it accused of having stepped up operations. However, despite several reported violations of the ceasefire since it came into effect on Thursday, casualty levels have fallen significantly since the truce was agreed.

“All I can say is that it [the ceasefire] is fragile, very fragile, that’s why we need to move quickly,” said Ahmad Fawzi, a UN spokesman.

An advance team of six unarmed UN ceasefire monitors was due to arrive in Syria on Sunday evening after the Security Council’s first resolution on Saturday on the 13 month old crisis. It authorised the deployment of up to 30 ceasefire monitors to “liaise with the parties and to begin to report on the implementation of a full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties”.

The team, which is led by a Moroccan colonel, will be supplemented from existing peacekeeping deployments in the region, Mr Fawzi said. Increasing the deployment to the 250 the UN wants to send will require another resolution from the UN Security Council. Mr Fawzi said he expected the Security Council to discuss the matter this week.

Saturday’s Security Council resolution also urged the government to pull back its military and stop using heavy weapons in populated areas in line with its commitment to the UN’s six point plan for ending the crisis in Syria, of which the ceasefire is just one component.

The plan – put forward by Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy, to address rising violence as the government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters evolves into a civil war – calls for an eventual political solution to the crisis.

Many doubt the sincerity of the regime’s public commitment to the Annan plan and there are concerns that the UN mission is not strong enough to monitor its implementation.

The resolution calls on the Syrian government to allow the monitors “full, unimpeded and immediate freedom of movement and access” and private communication.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a spokeswoman for the Syrian government, was reported by Reuters as saying that Damascus had to participate in deciding “the duration of the work of observers and priorities of their movement,” because it could not otherwise be responsible for their security.

Michael Williams, a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs think-tank and former UN official, said: “This is an extremely tough regime and you need a very robust mandate to deal with them because they’ll attempt at every stage to undermine the mission.”

An official from a much-criticised Arab League monitoring mission, which was disbanded amid a surge in violence this year, said UN observers faced the same problems they did.

“There is no indication yet of how they will be moving around and what authorities they have,” the official said. “From what we have now it’s difficult to assess it would be different [to the Arab League mission].”

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