Annan tells U.N. Syria hasn't withdrawn heavy weapons

BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS Tue Apr 24, 2012 7:57pm EDT

1 of 16. A pool of blood is pictured next to a damaged car after a bomb exploded in Damascus in this handout released by Syria's national news agency SANA April 24, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/SANA/Handout

BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Syria has failed to comply with a pledge to withdraw weapons from population centers, and towns where citizens met with U.N. truce monitors may have been attacked, international mediator Kofi Annan told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

As violence flared in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Annan told the 15-nation body "we need eyes and ears on the ground, able to move freely and quickly" to watch over the ragged ceasefire. But the head of U.N. peacekeeping said deployment was moving slowly.

Annan made clear that Syrian forces had not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers and returned to barracks, as they are required to under a six-point peace plan he drew up.

"The situation in Syria continues to be unacceptable. The Syria authorities must implement their commitments in full, and a cessation of violation in all its forms must be respected by all parties," Annan said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

He suggested the Syrian government was targeting people in areas where the monitors had met with civilians. He noted that he was "particularly alarmed by reports that government troops entered Hama yesterday after observers departed, firing automatic weapons and killing a significant number of people."

"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," Annan said. "Two observers have been stationed in Hama today."

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, sent a Twitter message from inside the council where Annan was briefing via video link, saying, "targeting by Syrian regime of those speaking with U.N. monitors is outrageous but not unexpected."

Rice said that was a direct violation of two resolutions the Security Council adopted this month to authorize the deployment to Syria of 300 monitors and an unspecified number of civilians as part of a U.N. observer mission called UNSMIS.

Activists said 31 people were killed in shelling and shooting in Hama, a hub of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, immediately after a visit by a monitoring team.

Observers from the fledgling U.N. mission are maintaining a presence the central province of Homs, hotbed of the 13-month-old uprising, as part of efforts to silence the guns 12 days after Annan's peace deal was struck.

Under the terms of Annan's peace plan, both sides are supposed to adhere to a ceasefire while the army withdraws tanks and heavy weapons from population centers.

SYRIA COVERING UP HEAVY WEAPONS?

Annan told the council that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem wrote him a letter saying that "the withdrawal of massed troops and heavy weapons from in and around population centers is now complete and military operations have ceased."

Fawzi said "satellite imagery, however, and credible reports show that this has not fully happened."

According to several diplomats at the Security Council meeting, Rice suggested that Syrian authorities may be covering up the heavy weapons they claim to have withdrawn from cities.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he considered the possibility that Damascus might not have kept its word about withdrawing troops and arms a worrying development.

"If this is the case, if the promise in the letter has not really been carried out, that would mean it is a breach of the promise they made on Saturday," Churkin said. "I'm certainly going to bring it to the attention of Moscow."

Herve Ladsous, U.N. under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, told the council that deployment of the monitors was moving slowly and that by the end of next month only 100 of the 300 approved monitors would be in place.

There are now 11 observers in Syria, according to the U.N.

"I think that's a little bit slow," said Churkin. "A number of colleagues, including myself, we simply urged them (the U.N.) to maybe look for some unorthodox ways in order to expedite the process."

The reason for the slow deployment was not clear. Despite their sluggish arrival, even a small number of observers can have an enormous impact on the conflict, Annan said.

"We have also seen events change - at least temporarily - in Homs, where violence has dropped significantly in response to the presence of a very small number of observers," Annan said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the council last week that observers would be placed in about 10 cities.

Annan also said he was worried about reports of fighting in areas where the advance team of monitors has not been present, including Idlib and Deraa.

"The government cannot cease action in one area and resume it in another," Annan said.

The former U.N. secretary-general indicated that he felt a certain amount of frustration, saying: "Our patience has been tested severely - to the limits."

Three Syrian military officers were killed in Damascus on Tuesday, state media and opposition groups said, and at least three people were wounded in a car bomb blast in the capital.

VIOLENCE CONTINUES

SANA, the state news agency, said an "armed terrorist group" shot dead two army officers near Damascus, while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a third was killed in the capital's Barzeh neighborhood.

Damascus residents said the explosion in a pickup truck directly outside an Iranian cultural centre, in a popular shopping district, was loud but caused limited damage.

Windows in nearby shops were not shattered and there were no signs of damage to the centre, run by Assad's powerful regional ally, Tehran. Shopkeepers said four people were injured, including a taxi driver.

The pro-Assad Ikhbaria television channel blamed the blast on "armed terrorists" - shorthand for the rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the president, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers in North Africa and the Middle East.

The United Nations says security forces have killed at least 9,000 people in the conflict.

Damascus says 2,600 of its security personnel have died at the hands of insurgents who have seized control of pockets of towns and cities across the country of 23 million and who continue to launch guerrilla attacks.

SANA said officials on the Syria-Lebanon border had seized a car carrying ammunition and weapons, including three machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Anti-government groups say even the minimal U.N. presence has led to some decline in the daily death toll although they accuse the army of simply parking tanks out of sight and resuming operations the moment monitors' backs are turned.

An activist in Douma, a town east of Damascus that U.N. monitors visited on Monday, said there were tanks on the streets and two buildings had been hit by shells.

France said it still supported Annan's peace plan but could not do so forever without changes on the ground, most notably in the deployment of pro-Assad forces.

"The regime must not get it wrong this time," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. "It cannot continue to mislead the international community for much longer. When the time comes, we will have to take the necessary measures required if the situation on the ground continues."

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Christopher Wilson)

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