U.N. to send monitors to Syria as fighting rages
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United Nations will send an advance team of observers to Syria on Sunday to start monitoring a shaky ceasefire, even as a surge in violence on the ground threatened to derail international efforts to end more than a year of bloodshed.
Russia and China joined the rest of the Security Council to authorize the deployment of up to 30 unarmed observers in the first resolution on Syria the 15-nation council managed to approve unanimously since the uprising erupted in March 2011.
A spokesman for international mediator Kofi Annan said on Saturday an advance team of six monitors would arrive in Syria within 24 hours and deploy within 36 hours, with more to follow within days.
"I will make sure that this advance observer mission will be dispatched as soon as possible and try to make concrete proposals by the 18th of April for an official observer mission," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told United Nations radio separately in Geneva.
As Security Council members gathered to vote, fighting raged on inside Syria, with activists saying at least six people were killed in various incidents throughout the day.
In the opposition stronghold of Homs, activists reported the first shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the U.N. and Arab League brokered ceasefire officially took effect three days ago.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people were killed during a funeral march in Aleppo, one by shelling in Homs and a sixth succumbed to wounds inflicted by torture in the central town of Rastan, straddling the Damascus-Aleppo road.
A video, shot in a destroyed part of what the cameraman said was the Homs neighborhood of al-Qarabis, showed two tanks rushing through the streets to the sound of heavy gunfire and explosions.
"Look with your own eyes. Look, world. Watch what they are doing," the man making the video screamed as a tank raised its turret.
Syria blames the violence on "terrorists" seeking to topple Assad and has repeatedly denied access to journalists, making it impossible to verify the reports independently.
The state news agency SANA said "armed terrorists" killed five people in ambushes around the country on Saturday, and kidnapped a parliamentary candidate from the north. An army colonel was also kidnapped in the central city of Hama.
Ban said in a statement that the Syrian government had the prime responsibility to stop the violence and withdraw its forces from urban areas.
France's foreign ministry, while welcoming the U.N. vote, said it was now up to Syria to respect its commitments by withdrawing troops and heavy arms from populated areas.
"If this is not the case, it will be the responsibility of all the Security Council members to reflect on the measure that should be taken," it said in a statement.
VIOLENCE AND DIPLOMACY
In the resolution, the Security Council condemned the "widespread violations of human rights by the Syrian authorities, as well as any human rights abuses by armed groups".
It said those responsible would be held accountable and called on "all parties, including the opposition, immediately to cease all armed violence in all its forms".
The text included a vague warning to Damascus, saying the council would "assess the implementation of this resolution and to consider further steps as appropriate".
"The Syrian government must ensure that the monitoring team has freedom of movement and access, and it must not obstruct communication between the monitors and headquarters," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice condemned what she said was Damascus's "murderous rampage" over the last year. Asked if the Syrian forces' shelling of Homs on Saturday was a violation of the ceasefire, Rice said: "Absolutely."
The U.N. estimates Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the uprising. Authorities say foreign-backed militants have killed more than 2,500 soldiers and police.
On Saturday, the state news agency SANA and opposition groups traded blame for gunfire in the second city of Aleppo that activists said killed four and wounded three.
In a video, reportedly filmed in the Hay al-Etha neighborhood, the sound of gunfire and an explosion could be heard as men holding the Syrian revolutionary flag and children scattered from what appeared to be a demonstration.
SANA said: "Armed terrorist groups spread in Hay al-Etha, opened fire randomly and attacked public and private property."
In another video, dozens of people, some with medical masks wrapped around their faces, ran amid the sound of gunshots and two men dragged an injured man along the street.
"We are in a state of war," the camera-bearer shouted before running over to film a young man whose head was dripping with blood.