x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syria needs to give observers freedom of access, UN chief warns

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, also calls on opposition to co-operate as the six-person monitoring team arrives in Damascus.

The first six UN observers arrived in Damascus late on Sunday. Led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco,  25 more observers are expected to arrive in Syria in the coming days.
The first six UN observers arrived in Damascus late on Sunday. Led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, 25 more observers are expected to arrive in Syria in the coming days.

BEIRUT // The six-person team of unarmed military observers arrived in Damascus on Sunday and yesterday were negotiating ground-rules for their deployment with Syrian authorities.

"It is the Syrian government's responsibility to guarantee freedom of access, freedom of movement within the country," Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said in Brussels.

"They should be allowed to freely move to any places where they will be able to observe this cessation of violence."

The secretary general also called on opposition supporters to cooperate with the truce, which he described as "very fragile". The UN plans to increase the number of monitors to about 30, ahead of the deployment of the entire 250-person team, which needs to be authorised by the UN Security Council.

Led by Moroccan Col Ahmed Himmiche, the advance team met yesterday with Syrian foreign ministry officials to discuss issues including what freedom of movement the observers would have, said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.

"We will start our mission as soon as possible and we hope it will be a success," Col Himmiche told The Associated Press as he left a Damascus hotel along with his team yesterday.

An earlier Arab League monitoring mission collapsed in January after just a month. It was heavily criticised after the government hindered the monitors' access and violence continue to worsen.

Under the current truce plan - brokered by Mr Annan - Syrian authorities were supposed to begin withdrawing troops and heavy weaponry from population centres a week ago, ahead of a ceasefire by both the military and rebel forces last Thursday.

The latest peace initiative is part of Mr Annan's six-point plan to halt the violence and pave the way for talks between the government and opposition aimed at ending the year-long uprising that has killed thousands of Syrians.

While reports have suggested that overall violence has dropped, the continued bloodshed has raised concerns about the Al Assad regime's commitment to the plan. There have been reports that rebel fighters also have not put down their weapons.

At least 30 people were killed yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of opposition activists. The LCC reported 10 people were killed yesterday in Idlib, where clashes were reported between regime forces and rebel soldiers. In the city of Hama, at least nine people were reported dead, and at least five in the city of Homs, which Syrian forces continue to attack.

"The shelling hasn't stopped for one minute since this morning. There are buildings on fire right now," said Tarek Badrakhan, an activist from the district of Khaldiyeh.

"We hope that the observers would come to Homs as soon as possible because if things go on like this, there won't be anything left called Homs," he said.

Yesterday, the UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 11,117 people have been killed since March last year - 7,972 civilians and 3,145 soldiers and gunmen, including fewer than 600 rebel fighters. These reports could not be independently verified.

Sana, the Syrian state news agency, reported yesterday that attacks by "armed terrorists" had escalated since the truce came into effect on Thursday and that authorities would "prevent [the groups] ... from continuing their criminal aggressions against the army and law enforcement forces and citizens".

The report went on to say that there had been "dozens of violations" of the ceasefire carried out by armed groups.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse