United Nations military observers arrived in Syria to monitor a cease-fire agreement amid continued clashes between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and army defectors.
“The advance team of six UN observers arrived in Damascus last night, under the command of Moroccan Colonel Ahmed Himmiche,” said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for UN special envoy Kofi Annan. They will set up operating headquarters today and establish contact with the government and opposition forces “so both sides fully understand” their role, Fawzi said today in an e-mailed response to questions. A further 25 observers are expected to follow in the next few days, he said.
The observers are due to monitor a six-point cease-fire intended to end a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year and increasingly divided the country along sectarian lines. The government and opposition agreed to implement the plan starting April 12, and both sides have accused the other of violating it.
Assad’s forces engaged in “fierce clashes” with army defectors at dawn today in the northern province of Idlib while government forces fired mortar rounds on the neighborhoods of al-Khaldiyeh and al-Bayyada in the central city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. Syrian security forces killed 19 people today, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said in an e-mailed statement.
Syrian authorities must use “maximum restraint,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today. European Commission President Jose Barroso expressed “great concern” over the situation in Syria and with its main regional ally, Iran, which faces sanctions and threats of military strikes to prevent it from acquiring atomic weapons.
The observers are due to draft a report for Annan before a UN Security Council resolution, possibly next week, to deploy an additional 250 monitors, including civilians and human-rights activists, Fawzi told Al Jazeera television. The monitors will coordinate their mission with the Syrian government and should be granted free access to travel across the country, he said.
The government can only be responsible for the safety of the UN monitors if it is “involved with all steps on the ground,” Assad’s media adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told reporters in Damascus yesterday. The Syrian government also reserves the right to approve the nationalities of the UN monitors, she said.
Annan’s peace plan won backing from Russia and China, two countries that had vetoed earlier efforts by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies to pass a Security Council resolution calling for Assad to cede power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem is due to travel to China for two days “to discuss bilateral issues and the mission of Annan,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported today.
Assad and many of his senior officials are from the Alawite sect, affiliated with Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syria’s population and most of the leading opposition groups are Sunni Muslims.