Rebels say Syria police kill two, U.N. monitors dispute
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said police had opened fire and killed two people on Tuesday when a crowd turned out to greet a team of U.N. ceasefire monitors in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
A United Nations spokeswoman said the team had heard gunfire but said they had not seen any casualties.
The U.N. team was part of a contingent of about 260 unarmed observers sent to Syria to monitor an internationally-brokered ceasefire in the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and opponents trying to overthrow him.
Government forces have been widely condemned for their repression of the uprising but both sides have regularly violated the ceasefire.
Abu Laila, a Free Syrian Army official, told Reuters by phone from the town of al-Busaira: "As soon as the U.N. convoy entered al-Busaira, a jubilant crowd of hundreds came out to welcome them. It was not minutes before they came under fire."
Another opposition source in the province said government forces surrounding al-Busaira had fired anti-aircraft guns at the town.
The spokeswoman for the monitors, whose mission is part of a peace plan laid out by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, said the U.N. team had heard gunfire near the town but had no information on casualties.
"A group of villagers from elsewhere followed the U.N. patrol to al-Busaira, which is government-controlled. They were asked not to follow the patrol into the town," she said.
"The team left by another checkpoint to avoid any contact between the military and villagers, and there they heard the use of heavy weapons."
Claims from both sides in the conflict are hard to confirm independently as Syria restricts access for most journalists.
Deir al-Zor, an oil-producing province bordering Iraq, has often seen skirmishes in recent months between insurgents and government troops trying to regain control of rebel-held areas.
Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority, had relied on a network of alliances with Sunni Muslim tribes forged by his late father, Hafez al-Assad, to keep Deir al-Zor under control.
But these began to break down after anti-Assad demonstrations broke out in July and the government sent in tanks to quell them.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed at least 9,000 people since the uprising started in March 2011. The government says armed opposition groups have killed about 2,600 soldiers and members of the security forces.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Angus MacSwan)