UN monitors flee Syria protest after gunfire
Moroccan Colonel Ahmet Himmiche (3rd L), leader of the first UN monitoring team in Syria, during a visit with his team to one of Damascus' suburbs (Reuters)
By Ben Hubbard
Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-regime demonstrators surrounding the cars of a UN team meant to monitor a shaky cease-fire, sending the observers speeding off and protesters dashing for cover, according to activists and amateur videos.
The fresh violence in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, provided the first public glimpse of the work of the small team struggling to reinforce the international community's stumbling efforts to end 13 months of deadly conflict in Syria.
The shooting, which wounded at least eight people, could also complicate the deployment of a larger UN mission to help a cease-fire take hold between President Bashar Assad's forces and opposition fighters.
The difficulties of the team's mission was clear Wednesday during its visit to the suburb of Arbeen, just northeast of Damascus.
The team did not announce its plans to visit the area, but a local activist said residents guessed they were coming when tanks posted throughout the area withdrew early Wednesday.
People quickly drew up signs as well as a list of the 34 residents killed since the start of the uprising and information on the scores who have been detained, an Arbeen activist named Ahmed said via Skype. He declined to give his last name for fear of retribution.
Amateur videos posted online showed hundreds of demonstrators crowding around at least three UN Land Cruisers, waving Syrian flags and chanting against the regime. In one video, a man with a microphone and huge speakers on the back of a pickup truck led the crowd in singing "Bashar, Bashar, we will not kneel!"
A handwritten sign apparently taped by a demonstrator on one of the cars read, "The murderer keeps killing, the observers keep observing and the people keep up the revolution."
In another video, the protesters were walking down a boulevard surrounding the cars when a boom rang out, sending demonstrators scattering. Smoke rose in front of the crowd and the cars sped off, sirens blaring. In yet another video, protesters sprinted down side streets while gunfire is heard nearby.
Ahmed, the local activist, said the group was marching toward a square where the government had posted plain clothes security offices called shabiha and government supporters holding a counter demonstration.
"We started walking with the observers thinking that they'd protect us, but then the shabiha started shooting at us, even when the observers' cars were at the front of the march," he said.
After the observers left, security cars drove through the area firing, injuring about 20 people, he said.
"Once the committee was gone, there was no one else to see what they were doing," he said.
The team's head, Col. Ahmed Himiche, declined to comment on the incident, saying the team would report only to the UN.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight protesters were wounded in Arbeen.
The group, which relies on an activist network in Syria, also said government forces shelled opposition areas in the provinces of Homs in central Syria and Idlib in the north.
For its part, Syria's state news agency said roadside bomb attacks in Idlib and Aleppo killed 10 security officers and one civilian. The incidents could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from working in the country.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon was to report to the Security Council on whether Syria is complying with the truce and suggest further measures to advance a UN plan to end the fighting. Syrian officials have indicated that they will block some of those measures.
The plan, brokered by former UN chief Kofi Annan, has been troubled since it went into effect last Thursday.
The government was supposed to withdraw its troops from towns and cities and observe a cease-fire, to be followed by a cease-fire by the armed opposition. The truce is intended to allow for a dialogue among all parties on a political solution to the conflict.
Instead, Assad's government has ignored key provisions, such as giving free access to humanitarian aid groups and journalists. And while daily violence dipped last week, it has crept back up, with regime forces shelling opposition areas, killing dozens in recent days, activists said. Rebel fighters known at the Free Syrian Army have also attacked and killed security forces.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Syrian opposition forces of provoking the government's backlash in order to thwart the cease-fire. He urged nations that have leverage with the opposition to force it to abide by cease-fire.
"There must be a tough demand not to allow any provocations and respect the cease-fire," Lavrov said.
Russia has been one of Syria's strongest allies, shielding Assad from international condemnation at the UN out of fear that it would open the door to possible NATO airstrikes like those which helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stressed Wednesday that the alliance had no of intention of intervening in Syria.
Despite opposing stronger sanctions against Syria, Russia has strongly supported the Annan plan.
Few Syria analysts expect that plan to end the country's crisis, though some think it could reduce the violence. The UN estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed since Syrians first took to the street to call for political reforms in March 2011. Assad violently cracked down, and many in the opposition have since taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.
With the cease-fire technically in effect, an advance team of six UN staffers arrived in Syria over the weekend to begin monitoring the situation and negotiate with Syrian authorities. Himiche said he expects an additional two dozen monitors to reach Syria on Thursday.
Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping department, said Syrian and UN negotiators were "very close to finalising" a protocol on ground rules for the advance team, including how Syrian authorities will enable the observers to perform their duties.
The plan calls for 250 monitors altogether, but Ban said Tuesday that may not be enough. He has also asked the European Union to send helicopters to transport the observers around Syria, a country slightly larger than North Dakota.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday that his government would abide by Annan's plan and that the deployment of 250 observers was "logical and possible".
But in an apparent dodge, he said Syria would put helicopters from its air force at the delegation's disposal - not mentioning the possibility of allowing aircraft from outside the country.
"As we have understood, what is needed are helicopters to evacuate the injured. If that is the issue, then we have the capabilities in our air force to carry this out," Moallem said.
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who currently is serving as Security Council president, said the advance team "is having difficulty operating with the freedom that we all expected and that is required." She insisted that the group be able to work independently.
Ahmed, the Arbeen activist, said he didn't expect the UN peace plan to work, though he did hope the observers would return so residents could tell them how they'd suffered under the government crackdown. "All I hope now is that this was just a get-to-know-you visit and that they'll come back in the coming weeks."