- Associated Press - Sunday, April 15, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s 4-day-old cease-fire appeared to be eroding quickly on Sunday, with regime forces firing dozens of tank shells and mortar rounds at neighborhoods in the opposition stronghold of Homs, hours before the arrival of a first team of U.N. 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 former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on Syria’s political future.

Mr. 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 neighborhoods, with the exception of Homs, but has ignored calls to pull troops out of urban centers, apparently for fear of losing control over a country his family has ruled for four decades. Rebel fighters also have kept up attacks, including shooting ambushes.

The international community hopes U.N. observers will be able to stabilize the cease-fire, which formally took effect Thursday. A six-member advance team of U.N. observers headed to Damascus on Sunday, a day after an unanimous U.N. Security Council approved such a mission. A larger team of 250 observers requires more negotiations between the United Nations and the Syrian government next week.

With Mr. Assad seen as a reluctant participant in Mr. Annan’s plan, the observers’ success will depend on how much access they can negotiate in Syria and how quickly the team can grow to a full contingent, analysts said.

This image made from amateur video and released by Bambuser on Saturday, April 14, 2012, purports to show smoke from shelling in Homs, Syria. (AP Photo/Bambuser via AP Video)
This image made from amateur video and released by Bambuser on Saturday, ... more >

The Security Council demanded freedom of movement for the U.N. team, but the regime could try to create obstacles; the failure of an Arab League observer mission earlier this year was blamed in part on regime restrictions imposed on the visitors.

“This will be a serious cat-and-mouse game between the government and the U.N. for weeks to come,” George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said of the new observer mission. Buying time is in Mr. Assad’s interest, he said.

However, a reassuring presence of monitors also could enable Syria’s opposition to return to staging mass marches, common in the early days of the anti-Assad uprising, which erupted in March 2011. In response to a violent regime crackdown on such protests, the turnout for weekly anti-regime marches has decreased. The opposition resorted more and more to armed attacks in recent months. By returning to peaceful protests, it would be able to regain some of the moral high ground it lost as the conflict became increasingly violent.

Since the cease-fire began, each side has accused the other of violations.

Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, has reported rebel attacks targeting checkpoints and army officers, while opposition activists said regime troops and their allied Shabiha militiamen continued arrest raids and mistreatment of those in detention.

The city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest, was the main flashpoint of violence again Sunday. The city was battered by daily regime shelling for three weeks before the cease-fire, and shelling resumed late Friday, less than 48 hours after the truce took effect, residents said.

“What cease-fire? There’s an explosion every five to six minutes,” a Homs-based activist identified only as Yazan said via Skype.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that two men and a woman were killed by shelling in Homs on Sunday and that three more bodies were found in the city. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the group, said Sunday’s shelling was more intense than the attacks of the previous day.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the death toll in Homs at 11. It said the day started with a barrage of shells that fell at the rate of six per minute, shaking the neighborhood of Khaldiyeh for the second consecutive day.

In amateur videos posted by activists Sunday, explosions and gunfire could be heard as parts of Khaldiyeh were engulfed in gray smoke. Shells could be heard whistling overhead before crashing near residential buildings. A tree burst into flames after a shell exploded.

Story Continues →