UN monitors arrive in Syria as army bombards rebel stronghold

Syrian forces shell rebel positions in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Sunday. (AFP)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—An advance team of six UN observers arrived in Damascus on Monday to monitor the four-day-old cease-fire, as Syrian forces continued to bombard the rebel stronghold of Homs and clashed with rebels along the border with Turkey.

UN envoy Kofi Annan’s spokesman said 25 more observers are to arrive within days. Spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said they “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 UN observers.”

The UN monitors began arriving as the cease-fire appeared to be ignored in areas that have seen the most brutal attacks by the army of President Bashar Assad. Soldiers were firing tank shells and mortar rounds at neighborhoods in the opposition stronghold of Homs, with opposition sources reporting 28 civilians killed on Sunday and another 12 on Monday.

On Monday rebels and Syrian Army units clashed near the Turkish-Syrian border.

“Fierce clashes are taking place in the northern province of Idlib, while shelling resumed on areas in Homs, amid attempts by government forces to take control of some areas inside the restive central province,” the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday called on both the government and opposition forces to abstain from any violence, calling the four-day cease-fire in the country “very fragile.” “Any small unintended gunfire may break this very fragile process,” he said.

Bam told a news conference in Geneva that the onus is on Assad’s government to keep its promise to observe the cease-fire. However, he warned that the international community must remain unified to keep Syria from disintegrating into chaos.

“I really like to see this cease-fire continue to be sustained. It just [happened] today that they stopped the fighting. We are following it very closely. The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes since previous promises made by the government of Syria have not been kept,” Ban told reporters.

“I am urging President Assad to keep his promise and to exercise maximum restraint,” said Ban. “This cease-fire process is very fragile. It may be broken any time, if and when there is another gunshot. Even a small gunshot may give both sides a pretext to engage in another fighting. This is a very worrisome,” he said.

Since the cease-fire came into effect last Thursday, opposition sources have registered some 200 violations of the truce by government forces. More than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since mid-March 2011, most of them civilians, according to UN estimates.

Syrian government spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban said Syria would not uphold the cease-fire if armed elements of the opposition attacked. “It is Syria’s right to respond to any acts of aggression against Syrian forces, civilians, or private property,” she said.