DAMASCUS // United Nations observers overseeing the ceasefire in Syria suspended their mission yesterday because of rising violence.
General Robert Mood, a veteran UN peacekeeper heading the 300-strong observer force, said a sharp escalation in bloodshed over the last 10 days had made conditions dangerous for the unarmed monitors and undermined their ability to work.
He said in a statement: "The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men women and children are being killed every day.
"It is also posing significant risks to our observers. In this high-risk situation, UNSMIS [United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria] is suspending its activities," Gen Mood said.
UN monitors have reported coming under fire during patrols, something they have attributed to both pro-government and rebel forces, and UN convoys have been hit by roadside bombs. Last week, the observers were attacked by regime supporters while trying to access Haffah in Latakia province, which at the time was under heavy assault by government troops.
Gen Mood's comments came as the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, said at least 54 people were killed yesterday, most of them in suburbs of Damascus but also in Homs, Idleb, Deraa, Latakia and Hama.
UN observers have been conducting daily patrols in many areas prominent in the 15-month uprising against Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president. Those patrols have now been stopped until further notice.
The UN presence failed to halt both intensified military operations by government forces against rebel strongholds and increasingly effective attacks by the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Regime troops have continued to use heavy artillery, mortars and - a recent development - helicopter gunships against rebel-held areas. The lightly armed, although increasingly well-equipped FSA, which has said it no longer feels bound to the ceasefire, has also stepped up its own operations, including bombings and assaults inside the capital Damascus where it has fought extended gun battles with regime units.
Both the government and FSA initially committed to uphold the ceasefire, mediated by the UN special envoy Kofi Annan.
However, apart from a brief lull in violence shortly after it was agreed on April 12, the deal has never been implemented.
Mr Annan has said primary responsibility for implementation of his peace plan lies with the Syrian authorities but he has stressed that both government troops and rebels must stop the use of violence.
Syria's state run news agency, Sana, yesterday cited a foreign ministry source as blaming "armed terrorist groups" - the phrase it uses for rebel factions and their supporters - for the suspension, saying they had attacked UN monitors.
"The armed groups also disregarded Annan's plan and the initial agreement between the UN and the Syrian government, aided by Arab and international powers that are still providing the terrorists with up-to-date weapons and communication devices that help them in committing their crimes and sticking to their defiance of the UN plan," Sana reported.
Gen Mood said UN monitoring operations would be resumed if and when conditions improve.
The observers' mandate, approved by the UN Security Council, is due to expire on 20 July at which point it would need to be renewed for any continuation.
"The UN observers have realised they have become useless except as eyewitnesses to destruction," said a Syrian political analyst.
He said government forces and armed rebels were effectively ignoring the monitors and predicted the suspension would have little lasting impact.
"Pressure will increase on the Syrian government to rein in its forces but it's really too late for that and I don't expect to see any real improvement on the ground," the analyst said.
"What we are seeing is an admission that the Annan peace plan is failing and we will have to see how the international community will respond to that," he said.