Syria’s four-day-old ceasefire appeared to be quickly eroding Sunday, with regime forces firing dozens of tank shells and mortar rounds at neighbourhoods in the opposition stronghold of Homs, hours before the arrival of a first team of UN truce monitors.
Even though the overall level of violence has dropped, escalating regime attacks over the weekend raised new doubts about President Bashar Assad’s commitment to a plan by special envoy Kofi Annan to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on Syria’s political future.
Assad accepted the truce deal at the prodding of his main ally, Russia, but his compliance has been limited.
He has halted shelling of rebel-held neighbourhoods, with the exception of Homs, but has ignored calls to pull troops out of urban centres, apparently for fear of losing control over a country his family has ruled for four decades.
Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks, including shooting ambushes.
An initial team of six UN ceasefire monitors arrived in the capital Damascus on Sunday evening as expected. Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for international mediator Kofi Annan, said the team would be deployed on Monday.
As the monitors prepared to embark on their mission, the city of Homs, one of the hotbeds of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, was bombarded by government forces at a rate of “one shell per minute,” activists said.
Activist sources reported six people were killed on Sunday, and four bodies were found.
The observers are due to be joined by two dozen more monitors soon in line with a Security Council resolution adopted on Saturday authorizing the deployment of up to 30 people.
The Syrian government said it could not be responsible for the safety of the monitors unless it was involved in “all steps on the ground”, said Syrian government spokeswoman and presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.
She said Syria reserved the right to agree on the nationality of those participating.
Fawzi confirmed that the size of the mission could be expanded to 250, or perhaps somewhat more, contingent upon a second Security Council resolution that he expected would be discussed and adopted “before the end of next week”.
The international community hopes UN observers will be able to stabilize the ceasefire, which formally took effect Thursday.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed serious concern at the Syrian government’s shelling of Homs and said “the whole world is watching with skeptical eyes” whether the ceasefire can be sustained.
Source: Associated Press