Advance UN observer team for Syria on standby

GENEVA, Switzerland – An advance team of about a dozen U.N. observers is ready to enter Syria, where a cease-fire has been “relatively respected” despite government troops and heavy weapons still in cities and continuing abuses, the spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan said Friday.

The advance team is “standing by to board planes and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible” once the U.N. Security Council approves the mission, Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi told a news conference.

Deputy ambassadors met behind closed doors to consider a draft resolution Friday, but Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters the text was longer and more complicated than he expected — and more negotiations would be needed.

The truce, which formally took effect Thursday, is at the center of Annan’s six-point plan to stop Syria’s crackdown on a popular uprising and launch talks on its political future. The uprising in the Arab country began in March 2011 with peaceful protests but has become increasingly militarized in response to the crackdown by President Bashar Assad’s regime. The fighting has killed an estimated 9,000 people.

In the first major test of the U.N.-brokered truce, thousands of Syrians poured into the streets Friday for anti-government protests, activists said. Security forces responded by firing in the air and beating some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of widespread shelling, sniper attacks or other potential violations of the cease-fire.

“We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm,” Fawzi said. “We are thankful that there’s no heavy shelling, that the number of casualties are dropping, that the number of refugees who are crossing the borders are also dropping.”

Annan has asked the 15-nation Security Council to approve sending a U.N. observer mission to Syria as soon as possible. The council’s draft resolution would authorize an advance element of up to 30 unarmed military observers.

It demands that the Syrian government ensure unimpeded freedom of movement for the observers and the ability to interview anyone they want in private. It also would require that Syrian troops and heavy weapons — which have remained in cities and towns contrary to the government’s promises — are withdrawn to their barracks. The resolution would also reiterate a call for unimpeded access for humanitarian workers.

The original draft describes the council as determined to consider “further measures” — which could include sanctions that Syria’s allies Russia and China have opposed — if Syria does not follow through on its commitments. Diplomats said this language has since been weakened.

Fawzi said the Syrian government agreed to the deployment of a U.N. observer mission when it committed to Annan’s peace plan. If the council eventually approves an observer mission, Fawzi said an advance team of “around 10 or 12″ observers, that could quickly be ratcheted up to 30, would deploy immediately to prepare the way for a full mission.
Additional Security Council approval would be required, he said, to put up to 250 observers on the ground.

Troops already in the region from Asian, African and South American countries acceptable to Assad’s regime could be used for the mission, Fawzi said.

Fawzi quoted Annan as telling the council during a closed-door briefing Thursday that “the continued presence of Syrian armed forces, including armor, in and around population centers, must end immediately. Violence in all its forms, including arbitrary arrests, torture and abductions, must stop.”

Annan’s plan also calls for Syria to ensure freedom of movement for journalists. Fawzi said Syria’s government provided Annan with a list of 53 journalists who have been given visas to enter the country. Annan got a letter days earlier, Fawzi said, listing 21 organizations with entry visas.

Fawzi insisted that the truce is a first step on a long road to peace.

“This is only the beginning of a long road toward reconciling and toward building the future that Syrians aspire to, where there are no detentions without cause, where law enforcement guarantees peace and security in the street — not the military,” he said.

Clashes between Syrian troops and opponents are “not unusual,” he said. “Sometimes, in situations like this, the parties test each other.”

Source: Associated Press

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