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U.N. observers tour rebel-held Syria town

- Associated Press - Sunday, April 22, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — U.N. cease-fire monitors toured a rebel-held town in central Syria on Sunday with army defectors, while government troops stormed and shelled a Damascus suburb, activists said.

The shelling in Douma highlighted the need for more observers a day after the U.N. Security Council voted to expand the number of U.N. observers from 30 to 300 in hopes of salvaging an international truce plan marred by continued fighting between the military and rebels.

An eight-member team is already on the ground in Syria and since Thursday has visited flashpoints of the 13-month-long conflict. Fighting generally halts temporarily when the observers are present in an area, but there has been a steady stream of reports of violence from towns and regions where they have not yet gone.

"This U.N. observers thing is a big joke," said Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed. "Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes."

His comments reflect a widespread lack of faith among many Syrians in former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan for ending the violence in Syria and launching talks between President Bashar Assad and those trying to oust him.

Syria's opposition and its Western supporters suspect Mr. Assad is largely paying lip service to the truce since full compliance — including withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from populated areas and allowing peaceful demonstrations — could quickly sweep him from power.

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

The state-run news agency, SANA, said U.N. monitors visited the central city of Hama on Sunday, where they met with the governor, while opposition activists said observers visited Rastan, a rebel-held town in central Syria. An amateur video posted online showed two white U.N. vehicles driving in Rastan accompanied by a red pickup truck with the words "Free Army" written on it.

Mr. Saeed, the activist, said two people were killed Sunday by indiscriminate firing in Douma, which was the scene of intense clashes between rebels and security forces before the U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect more than a week ago.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group with a network of activists on the ground, confirmed the deaths. It said four soldiers were also killed when a roadside bomb hit an armored personnel carrier in the town later Sunday.

The Observatory also reported that security forces killed three people in the northern province of Idlib and one person in the village of Hteita outside Damascus when troops opened fire from a checkpoint.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the attack on Douma. Mr. Saeed said loud explosions that shook the city early Sunday caused panic among residents, some of whom used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to take cover in basements and in lower floors of apartment buildings.

The Security Council approved a resolution Saturday expanding the U.N. observer mission from 30 to 300 members, initially for 90 days. The expanded force is meant to shore up the cease-fire, which officially took effect 10 days ago but has failed to halt the violence that the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011.

Mr. Annan, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, on Sunday welcomed the Security Council vote, calling it a "pivotal moment" in the process of stabilizing the country, and urged all Syrians to uphold the cease-fire.

"The government in particular must desist from the use of heavy weapons and ... withdraw such weapons and armed units from population centers," he said.

He added that the presence of observers would help create the conditions conducive to launching the much-needed political process and called on the Syrian government and the opposition "to prepare to engage in such a process as a matter of utmost priority."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has accused Mr. 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 also have kept up attacks.

SANA said Sunday that an officer was killed and 42 others wounded in a roadside bomb explosion that targeted their bus Sunday in northern Syria. Two other explosives were dismantled on the spot on the Raqqa-Aleppo highway, SANA said.

The U.N. eight-member advance team already has visited the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, the southern province of Daraa and the battered opposition stronghold of Homs. The monitors have not visited Douma yet.

Activists said Homs was relatively calm for the second consecutive day Sunday. Five monitors who toured Homs Saturday encountered unusually calm streets after weeks of shelling, and activists said it was the first quiet day in months. Two observers stayed behind in Homs to keep monitoring the city, after the rest of the team left that evening.

Activist Salim Qabani, based in Homs province, said there was none of the heavy shelling of the previous days. But he said a mortar shell landed in the Jouret al-Shayah district and set a home on fire.

Syria keeps tight restrictions on foreign and local media, and reports of shelling and casualties cannot be independently confirmed.

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