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UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a Russia-European drafted resolution on Saturday that authorizes an initial deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to Syria for three months to help bolster a fragile week-old ceasefire.
But the 15-nation council's move to condition deployment of observers on a U.N. assessment of compliance with the truce reflected U.S. and European fears that the Syrian government's failure to stop shelling towns, return troops to barracks and withdraw heavy weapons from cities makes the prospects for success slim.
The vote came hours after U.N. ceasefire monitors visited the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday after months of bombardment.
Opposition activists in Homs, epicenter of the 13-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, said shelling and gunfire stopped for the first time in weeks before Syrian authorities let the monitors into the city.
The resolution said that deployment of the U.N. observer mission, to be called UNSMIS, would depend on an assessment by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about compliance with a six-point peace deal mediated by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Ban will report to the council every 15 days.
The resolution also noted that the cessation of violence by the government and opposition is "clearly incomplete" and warned that the council could consider "further steps" in the event of non-compliance with its terms. It also urged Syria to quickly agree with the U.N. on the observers' use of "appropriate air transportation assets," which Damascus has yet to accept.
The United States, Britain and France all made clear they would want any "further steps" by the council to be sanctions. Western powers have little appetite for a Libya-style military intervention to topple Assad's government.
Like the council's resolution from last week that authorized deployment of an advance team of up to 30 monitors, Saturday's decision calls on both the Syrian government and opposition to halt fighting that has killed thousands over the past year.
After the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice made no effort to hide Washington's reluctance to support the deployment of the mission in the face of continued violence and a "murderous rampage" by the Syrian government.
"The United Nations Security Council has called upon the government to take concrete actions," she said. "The Syrian government has ignored this council. In the United States, our patience is exhausted."
Rice said the United States would not support renewal of the mandate after three months if the Syrian government did not implement Annan's six-point peace proposal and would push for sanctions if that happened.
"We will not wait 90 days to pursue measures against the Syrian government if it continues to violate its commitments or obstruct the monitors' work," Rice said.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin welcomed the resolution and said Rice's apparent pessimism was "unhelpful."
"Making negative predictions sometimes looks like a prophecy which some people want to be borne out," he said. "We would like to think positively about the current situation."
Speaking to reporters before the vote, Churkin reiterated Moscow's position that "sanctions are counterproductive."
French Ambassador Gerard Araud said "we're taking a risk" with the deployment of UNSMIS. British envoy Mark Lyall Grant warned the Syrian government of the possibility of "robust sanctions."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that the resolution "increases the pressure on the Syrian regime to begin a transition to a democratic, plural political system."
A handful of U.N. monitors has been in Syria for a week as an advance party while diplomats hammered out the mandate for a force of hundreds. During that time, a ceasefire has so far failed to end violence in the worst-hit parts of the country.
Activists in Homs said the shelling let up only to make it look as if the government was abiding by the truce and they expected shelling to resume as soon as the monitors left.
Lyall Grant said Damascus "has restricted the team's freedom of movement in a flagrant effort to hide the truth about its shameful acts of brutality and destruction."
Amateur video footage posted on the internet showed the monitors, clad in turquoise bullet-proof vests, being escorted by hordes of opposition residents through rubble-filled streets.
"The people want the overthrow of the president," chanted the residents, many carrying the Syrian revolutionary flag.
"A team of observers have been sent to Homs and met the governor," U.N. spokesman Khaled al-Masri said.
Syrian U.N. envoy Bashar Ja'afari told the Security Council that his government wants UNSMIS to succeed but cautioned that "those monitors must fulfill their work on the basis of objectivity, impartiality, and professionalism."
Assad's opponents fear that a few hundred observers with a weak mandate would act as little more than a fig leaf for the government, thwarting more robust intervention to halt the bloody crackdown on cities that have risen up against Assad.
A similar-sized Arab League observer mission collapsed in failure in January after just a month. But Annan's staff have argued that a small observer force can still help improve the situation by changing the political conditions on the ground.
The wobbly ceasefire was further undermined on Friday when at least 42 people were killed - 15 of them by two roadside bombs targeting security forces and many of the others by government forces' shelling of Homs.
On Saturday, the Syrian state news agency said that an "armed terrorist" group had blown up an oil pipeline in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, near the border with Iraq.
A "massive explosion" was heard near a military airport in the capital Damascus on Saturday, a resident said, adding that he was not sure what had caused the blast.
Nine Syrian army defectors were killed on Saturday by government troops in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The sound of gunfire and explosions were heard by residents in the town of Karak, in Deraa province, the birthplace of the revolution, the Observatory added.
U.N. chief Ban urged the government and opposition to make the deployment of the military observers possible by ending the fighting.
"He stresses the need for the Government of Syria to end all violence and human rights violations, and in particular to stop the use of heavy weapons and to withdraw such weapons and armed units from population centers," the statement said.
Churkin told reporters Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem wrote to Annan on Saturday to inform him that Damascus has now withdrawn heavy weapons and troops from Syrian towns.
Russia and China twice vetoed resolutions condemning Assad's government but fully support Annan's peace efforts.
Eight monitors are already in Syria from Morocco, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland and Norway after the council authorized an advance team of up to 30 on Saturday. A spokesman for that team told Reuters two more monitors were due to arrive on Monday.
Asked if Syria needed more monitors, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to Qatar that the number should be increased. "It could be thousands, because Syria needs this," he said, according to NTV news channel.
The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has welcomed the observers' mission and said that more monitors must be deployed to serve as witnesses.
The observers' task is to oversee the ceasefire mediated by Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general. The plan calls for an end to fighting by government security forces and rebels, withdrawal of heavy weapons from towns, the return of the army to barracks, humanitarian access and dialogue between the government and opposition aimed at a "political transition."
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, John Irish in Paris and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Will Dunham