Each Side Accuses the Other of Breaking Syrian Cease-Fire

Antigovernment activists in the Syrian conflict accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Tuesday of the most widespread violations of an already fractured five-day-old cease-fire, including the tank shelling of neighborhoods in at least two cities and the use of helicopters to attack suspected rebels in mountainside villages.

The Syrian government said its forces were responding to provocations from Mr. Assad’s armed opponents and accused them of trying to sabotage the cease-fire, part of a peace plan negotiated by Kofi Annan, the special emissary of the United Nations and the Arab League.

The sides traded accusations as an advance team of United Nations observers, sent to monitor the cease-fire, was spotted in the southern city of Dara’a, where the uprising against Mr. Assad started in March 2011, and where activists reported some clashes on Tuesday. There was no official confirmation of what the observers had done there.

“Three United Nations cars came, escorted by security,” said Ammar, a law student in Dara’a reached briefly by telephone, who, like many others who were contacted, identified himself by only one name to avoid retribution. He said protesters took to the streets instantly to send a message to the observers, who stayed closeted in an extended meeting with the local governor.

Activist groups reported death tolls ranging from 16 to about 50, with most concentrated in northern Idlib Province. Some of the discrepancy apparently reflected the belated discovery of Syrians killed Monday in some hamlets.

The government deployed helicopters to fire randomly into small villages on the southern flank of Zawiya Mountain, where the terrain made it difficult to maneuver tanks, activists said.

“We are not benefiting from even 20 percent of a cease-fire,” said Abu Muayad, 42, a resident of a town about 10 miles from the villages he said had been bearing the brunt of the attacks. “I can clearly hear the sound of helicopters and shelling in the distance,” he said, adding that many refugees had fled to his village last Thursday, when the cease-fire took effect.

Residents said they joked that they would donate their portion of the United Nations monitoring team to Homs, a restive city where the cease-fire appeared to have not brought any significant change.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group in Britain opposed to Mr. Assad with contacts in Syria, said tanks shelled the Khadiyeh district of Homs and the southern town of Busra al-Harir. Both areas are considered strongholds of the insurgent Free Syrian Army.

Several activists posted videos from Homs showing smoke and flames billowing from buildings as shells whined past. Clashes were also reported in Hama.

Abdallah, a 22-year-old refugee whose family had fled Homs into nearby Lebanon, said the shelling could be heard over the border. After hearing about the cease-fire, his mother and three sisters had decided to return home but quickly fled again, he said. Minhal, an activist from Idlib, said 14 people had been killed in the villages of Ariha and Sarji, while bodies of more than 20 other victims killed a day earlier had turned up in mosques and orchards.

Syrian state television, using its standard description of the opposition, accused “armed terrorist gangs of firing randomly on houses in Homs in order to undermine the Annan plan.”

It said one rocket-propelled grenade had killed two 14-year-old boys playing on the roof of their building. State television interviewed a distraught neighbor who said those responsible were “criminals.”

Tuesday was Independence Day in Syria, marking the end of French colonial rule 66 years ago. Military leaders stressed in speeches that they would not allow the anti-Assad fighters to exploit the presence of United Nations monitors to regroup.

Independence Day protests against Mr. Assad’s government also erupted. One video posted online showed two activists releasing helium-filled balloons in what they said was a Damascus alley, each hung with the old Syrian flag that protesters have adopted as their own.

Source: The New York Times

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