U.N. team evacuated from tense Syrian town

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BEIRUT (AP) — A team of international observers was evacuated Wednesday from a tense town in northern Syria a day after their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, a U.N. spokesman said.

The blast struck the team’s vehicles Tuesday during a mission in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun. None of the observers was wounded, but they had to spend the night with rebel forces in the area. Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, said the observers were “reported to be uninjured and in good health.”

Syria-based U.N. spokesman Hassan Seklawi said U.N. members picked up the team around noon Wednesday.

“They left in one convoy in the direction of Hama,” Mr. Seklawi said referring to a central city south of Khan Sheikhoun.

Tuesday’s attack, which came minutes after witnesses said regime forces gunned down mourners at a funeral procession nearby, dealt a fresh blow to Mr. Annan’s peace plan and the U.N. effort to monitor compliance with a troubled cease-fire agreement.

Russian state television was to air an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad later Wednesday.

Russia has been Syria‘s most powerful and loyal ally over the course of the uprising, selling weapons to the regime and blocking action against Damascus at the U.N. Security Council.

Activists said the violence continued Wednesday with regime forces opening fire from the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, said the heavy machine-gun fire has so far prevented people from holding funerals for some of the 20 mourners who were killed at the funeral on Tuesday.

The United States said rebel forces had given the observers shelter in the town, which has witnessed anti-government protests since an uprising against Mr. Assad’s regime began in March last year.

Mr. Fawzi said in a statement that six staff members were “reportedly being treated well” while in rebel hands. He said the observers were caught up in the explosion as they met with the rebel Free Syrian Army. He said three vehicles were damaged.

More than 200 U.N. observers have been deployed throughout Syria to monitor the cease-fire agreement, which repeatedly has been violated by both sides since it took effect on April 12.

The bombing was at least the second time the U.N. observers have been caught up in Syria‘s violence. Last week, a roadside bomb struck a Syrian military truck in the south of the country just seconds after the Norwegian team leader, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, rode by in a convoy.

It was not clear who was behind the blast, and no one claimed responsibility.

A video posted by activists online appeared to show the exact moment the U.N. vehicle was struck. The video shows two white vehicles clearly marked “U.N.” with people milling around it, and two others parked a few yards behind. Slippers apparently left behind by the mourners running away from the shooting earlier are seen strewn about on the ground.

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