- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Plainclothes Syrian security agents opened fire at anti-regime protesters near the cars of U.N. monitors in a Damascus suburb Wednesday, a witness said. Amateur video showed people ducking for cover as gunshots rang out.

The videos could not be independently confirmed, but the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian security forces fired at protesters in the suburb of Arbeen, wounding eight.

Wednesday’s shooting raised concerns for the safety of the monitors. Under a plan brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, six observers arrived in the country over the weekend as an advance team for a larger contingent meant to shore up a week-old cease-fire that has been buckling under regime assaults on opposition strongholds and several bombings and shootings by the rebels. The truce was supposed to pave the way for talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition trying to topple him.

Mr. Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fazwi, confirmed that the U.N. observers were in Arbeen on Wednesday. He said it would be “appalling” if it was confirmed Syrian forces opened fire in the area.

Mr. Annan’s plan is seen as a last hope for reversing Syria’s slide toward civil war after a 13-month-old uprising to oust Mr. Assad killed more than 9,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Despite persistent violence, the international community is reluctant to declare the cease-fire dead, in part because it is seen as the only way to end bloodshed in Syria. Other options — such as foreign military intervention, arming Mr. Assad’s opponents and economic sanctions — either have been discarded or offer no quick solution. A deadlocked international community would be hard put to offer an alternative if it were to acknowledge the collapse of the truce.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to send a letter to the U.N. Security Council later Wednesday to report on Syrian compliance with the truce, something that will help determine whether conditions are right to expand the observer mission.

In Arbeen, residents received word Wednesday that the observer team was en route to their area, said a local activist, who would only give his first name, Ahmed, for fear of repercussions. He said residents rushed into the streets to meet the observers and then walked alongside the U.N. vehicles.

He said the U.N. cars and the anti-regime protesters were heading toward a downtown area where Assad supporters and plainclothes security agents had taken up positions. Ahmed said that at some points the agents fired at the protesters.

Amateur video posted online appears to back up the narrative.

In one, hundreds of demonstrators clapping, waving Syrian flags and chanting in support of the rebel Free Syrian Army are seen crowding around at least three U.N. vehicles. A handwritten sign taped to one of the U.N. cars, apparently by the protesters, reads, “The butcher keeps killing, the observers keep observing and the people keep up the revolution.”

Another video shows hundreds walking along as the two U.N. vehicles slowly make their way through a wide street in Arbeen. When a shot rings out, the two U.N. cars speed away, leaving the demonstrators behind.

In a third video posted online by the same user, hundreds of people waving flags are seen in a march. Suddenly, they panic and run for cover. A narrator says they are being shot at while the observers are in the area and gunfire is heard in the background.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem promised that the regime would respect the cease-fire and withdraw troops from urban centers in line with Mr. Annan’s peace plan. However, the regime so far has ignored last week’s deadline to get tanks and troops off the streets.

Instead, Syrian soldiers continued to pound rebellious areas with artillery after an initial lull of about one day at the start the truce. The ongoing attacks have dimmed hopes for Annan’s plan.

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