* Moroccan colonel leads UN advance monitor team
* Says he is optimistic for truce mission
* Homs districts shelled again, say activists
* UN rights team reports army truce violations
By Mariam Karouny and Douglas Hamilton
BEIRUT, April 16 A handful of soldiers in blue
caps put a tentative United Nations presence at the heart of the
Syrian crisis on Monday, predicting success for their mission to
stabilise a shaky four-day-old ceasefire even as shells were
Charged with overseeing an end to 13 months of violence, the
unarmed multinational squad of six professed their optimism.
"We are going to organise ourselves in order to be ready to
do our task as soon as possible," the leader of the advance
guard, Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, told reporters at a
Damascus hotel before meeting Syrian officials in the capital.
"All peacekeepers are optimistic," he added when asked if he
was hopeful an observer mission that should be expanded to 250
could cement a truce marked by persistent, sporadic violence.
U.N. human rights investigators said on Monday they had
received reports of shelling and arrests by Syrian forces since
the ceasefire, as well as executions of soldiers captured by
rebel forces, although the violence was generally less than
before the U.N.-brokered truce came into effect on Thursday.
Activists trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad
reported four people killed by shelling in Homs and four killed
in the city of Idlib on Monday in a gunbattle between troops and
army defectors. They said two people were killed in the central
city of Hama when their car came under fire. Damascus said
"terrorist groups" carried out that overnight attack.
The army shelled targets in Homs for the third day in a row,
activists said, despite a promise to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan
to withdraw from cities and silence heavy weapons.
Amateur video posted on the Internet at the weekend showed an
army mortar crew encamped in countryside with mortars of various
calibres, calmly firing rounds at some unseen target.
Security forces in armoured vehicles stormed the village of
Khattab in Hama province and carried out raids on Monday, the
activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, and
dozens of people were detained.
Activists said the army on Monday once again shelled the
Bayada and Khalidiya districts in Homs with heavy mortars. A
video posted by them on YouTube showed explosions followed by
clouds of smoke and dust.
The UN human rights team reported a "deteriorating
humanitarian situation" and said it was "seriously concerned
over ... the shelling of the (Khalidiya) neighbourhood and other
districts in Homs by government forces and the use of heavy
weaponry, such as machineguns in other areas, including Idlib
and some suburbs of Damascus".
New arrests in Hama and Aleppo were also raising concern.
A previous monitoring mission, by the Arab League, which has
suspended Syria's membership and called for Assad to step aside,
ended in failure in January after a just a month. Dozens of
unarmed Arab observers complained that a government crackdown on
protesters and rebels had made their mission too dangerous.
Morocco's Colonel Himmiche is the second U.N. peacekeeping
officer sent to Damascus to prepare a monitoring mission.
Norwegian General Robert Mood took a team of 10 to Syria on
April 5 and returned to Geneva on April 10 to brief Annan.
But Mood then went back to Oslo and has not been heard from
in public since. The U.N. has denied there was any problem. But
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, accused Mood of "sort
of fleeing his position in the middle of action".
On Sunday, as Homs was under fire, rebels attacked a police
station in Aleppo province hours before the U.N. advance party
arrived in Damascus. Activists said three people were killed by
shelling Homs, which has become the emblem of the revolt.
"Early this morning we saw a helicopter and a spotter plane
fly overhead. Ten minutes later, there was heavy shelling," said
Walid al-Fares in Homs. Another resident said government
loyalists were using heavy machineguns to shoot into the area.
Syria blames a year of escalating violence on "terrorists"
seeking to topple Assad and restricts independent journalists
access to the country, making it hard to verify reports.
The U.N. estimates Assad's forces have killed more than
9,000 people in the uprising. Syrian authorities say
foreign-backed militants have killed over 2,600 soldiers and
State news agency SANA on Sunday said Syria "will prevent
the armed terrorist groups from continuing their criminal
aggressions against the army and law enforcement forces and
citizens, which hysterically escalated" since the truce.
The 15-nation United Nations Security Council voted
unanimously on Saturday to authorise an initial deployment of up
to 30 unarmed observers. Since the uprising erupted in March
2011, Russia and China had blocked previous Western attempts to
pass Security Council resolutions on Syria, notably two
resolutions condemning the Assad government.
The advance mission will "try to make concrete proposals by
the 18th of April for an official observer mission", U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told U.N. radio in Geneva.
Asked why Annan was seeking only a force of 250 - much
smaller than peacekeeping missions elsewhere - his spokesman,
Ahmad Fawzi, said only that Annan believed this number would
suffice for the time being.
The U.N. has had a peacekeeping mission on a slice of Syrian
territory facing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since the
1970s. But the 1,040 troops of the U.N. Disengagement Force
(UNDOF) and a few score UNTSO officers (U.N. Truce Supervision
Organisation) have no role in Syria's internal crisis.