- Associated Press - Monday, April 16, 2012

BEIRUT — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that the Syrian government is responsible for guaranteeing U.N. observers full freedom of movement to monitor the country’s tenuous cease-fire, which activists say appeared to be unraveling as regime forces pounded the opposition stronghold of Homs.

Even though overall violence in Syria has dropped significantly since the truce took effect Thursday, the government’s shelling of the central city of Homs for the past four days has raised doubts about President Bashar Assad’s commitment to special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on the country’s political future.

An advance team of six observers arrived in Damascus late Sunday to negotiate the mission’s ground rules with Syrian authorities.

Mr. Ban, speaking to reporters in Brussels, called on Mr. Assad to ensure that the observers’ work is not hindered.

“It is the Syrian government’s responsibility to guarantee freedom of access, freedom of movement within the country,” he said. “They should be allowed to freely move to any places where they will be able to observe this cessation of violence.”

He called the cease-fire “very fragile,” but said it was essential that it hold so that an “inclusive political dialogue can continue.” He said opposition forces “should also fully cooperate.”

The U.N. plans to increase the advance team to 30 people, all of them unarmed, Mr. Ban said, adding that the Security Council is expected to authorize a formal monitoring team of about 250 people later this week.

The advance team, led by Moroccan Col. Ahmed Himmiche, met Monday with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials to discuss ground rules, including what freedom of movement the observers would have, according to Mr. Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.

Although the Security Council has demanded full access for the U.N. team, Mr. Assad’s regime could try to create obstacles. The failure of an Arab League observer mission earlier this year was blamed in part on regime-imposed restrictions on the monitors, including having to travel with government minders.

Mr. Fawzi said in a statement issued in Geneva that the mission “will start with setting up operating headquarters, and reaching out to the Syrian government and the opposition forces so that both sides fully understand the role of the U.N. observers.”

“We will start our mission as soon as possible and we hope it will be a success,” Col. Himmiche told the Associated Press as he and his team left a Damascus hotel.

The international community hopes U.N. observers will be able to stabilize the cease-fire. But violence has continued in pockets throughout the country since Thursday, fueling doubts about Mr. Assad’s intentions among Western countries and the Syrian opposition.

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