Syria Fighting Kills 17; UN Monitors Expand Visits

Posted April 23rd, 2012 at 1:00 am (UTC-5)
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Attacks by Syrian government and rebel forces have killed at least 17 people across the country as a small U.N. team visited more towns to monitor a tenuous cease-fire that has failed to end 13 months of violent conflict.

The Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian activist group, said Sunday's deaths included six people in the devastated flashpoint city of Homs with additional killings in Idlib, Daraa and the Damascus suburbs.

Activists and Syrian state media said Sunday's death toll includes five soldiers killed when a roadside bomb struck their armored personnel carrier.

None of the casualties could be independently confirmed.

Several unarmed U.N. truce monitors who have been stationed in Syria for the past week visited the opposition stronghold of Rastan and the central city of Hama Sunday.

Two members of the advance team also set up a base in Homs after spending the night in the city. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the continued presence of observers in Homs is deterring attacks by government forces.

The U.N. Security Council voted Saturday to expand the observer mission in Syria from 30 to 300 members in the hope of salvaging the April 12 cease-fire mediated by international envoy Kofi Annan.

Fighting between government and rebel forces has eased in some areas when observers are present, but has continued in others.

In a statement Sunday, Mr. Annan praised the Security Council resolution as a “pivotal moment” in stabilizing Syria. He urged security forces and rebel fighters to put down their weapons and work with the U.N. observers to consolidate the cease-fire.

But Mr. Annan said the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a “particular” duty to desist from using heavy weapons and honor its pledge to withdraw them from population centers.

The mission is set for at least 90 days, but the Council left it up to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to decide when it will be safe enough to deploy it. This would be the first time the U.N. has sent an unarmed mission into a conflict zone, and Western diplomats warned the team will likely fail unless the Syrian government complies with the cease-fire.

A spokeswoman for the exiled opposition Syrian National Council said Sunday the expanded observer mission is not enough to protect people from government attacks. Basma Kodmani called for at least 3,000 monitors to be sent to Syria quickly.

The United Nations estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed in the Syrian government's 13-month crackdown on dissent, while activist groups put the death toll at more than 11,000.