x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

As UN observers visit Hama, Syrian troops shell Damascus suburb

The shelling in Douma highlights the need for more UN observers on the ground, a day after the Security Council voted to expand the number of monitors from 30 to 300.

UN monitors visit Homs on Saturday. Two observers have stayed in the city, as the advanced eight-member team moved to Hama today.
UN monitors visit Homs on Saturday. Two observers have stayed in the city, as the advanced eight-member team moved to Hama today.

BEIRUT // UN ceasefire monitors toured a rebel-held town with army defectors, while Syrian troops stormed and shelled a Damascus suburb, activists said.

The shelling in Douma highlighted the need for more observers a day after the Security Council voted to expand the number of UN observers from 30 to 300 in hope of salvaging a truce marred by continued fighting between the military and rebels.

An eight-member team is already on the ground, and since Thursday has visited areas where there has been fighting during the 13-month-long conflict. Fighting generally halts temporarily when the observers are present, but there has been a steady stream of reports of violence from towns and regions where they have not yet gone.

"This UN observers thing is a big joke," said Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed. "Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes."

His comments reflect a widespread lack of faith among many Syrians in international envoy Kofi Annan's ceasefire plan for ending the violence and launching talks between President Bashar Al Assad and those trying to oust him.

Syria's opposition and its western supporters suspect Mr Al Assad is largely paying lip service to the truce since full compliance - including withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from populated areas and allowing peaceful demonstrations - could quickly sweep him from power.

A previous observer team, dispatched by the Arab League at the start of the year, withdrew after a month after failing to halt the fighting.

The state-run news agency SANA said UN monitors visited Hama where they met with the governor, while opposition activists said observers visited Rastan, a rebel-held town. An amateur video posted online showed two white UN vehicles driving in Rastan accompanied by a red pick-up truck with the words "Free Army" written on it.

Mr Saeed, the activist, said two people were killed yesterday by indiscriminate firing in Douma, which was the scene of intense clashes between rebels and security forces before the UN-brokered ceasefire went into effect more than a week ago.

The UN eight-member advance team has already visited the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, the southern province of Deraa, and the battered opposition stronghold of Homs. The monitors have yet to tour Douma.

Activists said Homs was relatively calm for the second consecutive day. Five monitors who toured Homs on Saturday encountered unusually calm streets after weeks of shelling, and activists said it was the first quiet day in months.

Two observers stayed behind in Homs to continue monitoring the city.