- Associated Press - Monday, April 23, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops armed with heavy machine guns killed dozens in the central city of Hama on Monday, activists said, just a day after chanting protesters welcomed a visit by a U.N. team sent to observe a shaky cease-fire.

The day’s violence, the city’s worst in months, added a dangerous new aspect to the U.N. team’s work: that the Syrian regime might exact deadly revenge against opponents who feel empowered by the observers’ presence to spill into the streets.

Observance of the truce, which was supposed to begin April 12, has been spotty at best. The main manifestation has been a temporary halt to fighting between President Bashar Assad’s troops and rebel forces in locations where observers are present.

Skepticism about the cease-fire remains high, but world leaders say the current plan to stop more than a year of hostilities might be the last chance.


U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council that the Syrian government still is using heavy weapons and has failed to implement the peace plan brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria.

Mr. Pascoe said Syria’s compliance with other elements of the plan, such as releasing detainees and allowing peaceful demonstrations, is “clearly insufficient.”

Some details of Monday’s events in Hama remained murky, though different activists said the attacks started early in the morning and stopped a few hours later after dozens of people had been killed.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said troops stormed the town, firing assault rifles and heavy machine guns, killing at least 33 people.

An activist named Ahmed reached by phone in Hama said troops shelled the Arbeen district early Monday before sending in foot soldiers. He said that 27 people were killed and that families were still searching damaged homes for others. He did not give his full name for fear of retribution.

Another activist in Hama, Mousab Alhamadee, reached via Skype, said as many as 50 had been killed. He guessed the attack was a direct result of the visit by U.N. monitors.

“This was the punishment for the people of Hama because yesterday they were very brave when they met the U.N. monitors,” he said.

The United Nations has sent an advance team of eight observers to Syria as part of Mr. Annan’s plan to end the fighting. More monitors are due to arrive in the coming days, and the international body has authorized a mission of 300 total observers, though it remains unclear when the full contingent will deploy.

Many Syrians, as well as the Western powers, have voiced skepticism about Mr. Assad’s willingness to abide by the plan for ending the bloodshed and launching talks between the regime and the opposition. They say the Syrian leader largely is 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.

Since the cease-fire went into effect, regime forces have continued to shell rebellious areas, and rebels have attacked regime checkpoints and military convoys.

The uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests calling for his ouster. The regime responded with a withering crackdown, which prompted many in the opposition to take up arms to fight government troops.

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