- Associated Press - Saturday, April 21, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Five unarmed U.N. truce monitors toured the battered city at the heart of the Syrian uprising on foot Saturday, encountering unusually calm streets after weeks of shelling as a throng of residents clamored for foreign military help to oust President Bashar Assad.

Their foray into a chaotic crowd in the city of Homs highlighted the risks faced by the observers, protected only by bright blue helmets and bulletproof vests. It came as the U.N. Security Council voted Saturday to expand the mission to 300 members in hopes of salvaging an international peace plan marred by continued fighting between the military and opposition rebels.

The observers, members of an eight-member advance team that has been on the ground a week, were seen on amateur video Saturday walking through rubble-strewn deserted streets lined by gutted apartment buildings. Activists reported only sporadic gunfire, but no shelling, and said troops had pulled armored vehicles off the streets. Two observers stayed behind in Homs to keep monitoring the city, after the rest of the team left Saturday evening.

The mission approved Saturday, initially for 90 days, is meant to shore up a cease-fire that officially took effect 10 days ago, but has failed to halt violence. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has accused Assad of violating the truce, and said Saturday that “the gross violations of the fundamental rights of the Syrian people must stop at once.” Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks.

It’s the first time the Security Council authorized unarmed U.N. military observers to go into a conflict area. Saturday’s resolution gave Ban the final say on when to deploy them, based on his assessment of the situation.

A previous observer team, dispatched by the Arab League at the start of the year, withdrew after a month, unable to halt the fighting.

Western diplomats put the onus on Syria to make the mission work. The U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice, warned that the U.S. would pursue sanctions if Assad doesn’t comply. Britain’s envoy,Mark Lyall Grant, said that “the mission will fail in its task if the regime continues to violate its commitments and obstructs the work of the mission.”

The truce and the observer mission are part of special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for ending 13 months of violence and launching talks between Assad and those trying to oust him. Syria’s opposition and its Western supporters suspect Assad is largely paying lip service to the cease-fire since full compliance could quickly sweep him from power.

So far, the regime has ignored such provisions and instead continued attacking opposition strongholds, though on a smaller scale than before the truce deadline.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, told the Security Council that Syria informed Annan on Saturday that it has withdrawn troops and heavy weapons from urban centers, but he did not make clear when it occurred. Opposition activists said that in some areas, such as Homs, armored vehicles were moved off the streets Saturday, but remained near populated areas.

Rice, in the toughest speech on Syria yet, warned that if Assad doesn’t make good on all commitments or obstructs the monitors’ work, the United States would pursue other “measures,” which in diplomatic language usually means sanctions.

“Let there be no doubt. We, our allies and others in this body are planning and preparing for those actions that will be required of all of us if the Assad regime persists in the slaughter of the Syrian people,” she said, adding the U.S. will not wait 90 days to take these measures if Syria keeps flouting its obligations.

Despite the violations, the international community sees Annan’s plan as the only way forward.

Russia and China have shielded their ally Syria against Security Council condemnation, Western powers oppose military intervention and Gulf country have failed to keep promises of funding rebels.

On Saturday, five observers toured rebel-held areas in Homs, a center of the uprising that has been battered by tank and mortar shells for weeks. Previously, the Syrian regime, citing security issues, had turned down a request by the observers to visit the city.

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