x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Violence hampering UN mission in Syria

Syrian government forces appear to be intensifying a campaign against rebel-held areas across the country, while opposition fighters are also stepping up attacks.

Zoi Constantine

Foreign Correspondent

BEIRUT // United Nations observers in Syria face "significant risks" and its monitoring mission is being compromised, the chief observer said yesterday.

On a day in which almost 30 people were killed, Major General Robert Mood said neither the Syrian government nor opposition forces were engaged in efforts towards a "peaceful transition".

"Violence, over the past 10 days, has been intensifying, again willingly by both the parties, with losses on both sides and significant risks to our observers," he told reporters in Damascus.

Syrian government forces appear to be intensifying a campaign against rebel-held areas across the country. Meanwhile, opposition fighters are also stepping up attacks and “the government is taking great losses”, Gen Mood said.

“The escalating violence is now limiting our ability to observe, verify and report, as well as assist in local dialogue and stability,” he said. Gen Mood also expressed concerns that neither the Syrian government nor opposition forces were engaged in efforts towards a “peaceful transition”.

“Instead there is a push towards advancing military positions.”

The deployment of international observers inside Syria has been a central part of a peace plan, which as so far failed to stem the violence.

Despite the continuing threat, thousands of people reportedly took to the streets yesterday to demonstrate against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.

Fighting between rebels and government forces was also reported in the provinces of Idib and Homs, and in the cities of Deraa, Aleppo, and areas around Damascus.

At least 28 people were killed across the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch accused Syrian forces of using sexual violence against men, women and children in detention and during raids.

"Sexual violence in detention is one of many horrific weapons in the Syrian government's torture arsenal and Syrian security forces regularly use it to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for the international rights organisation.

In a report, the group said it did not have evidence that there were specific orders from high-ranking officers to commit acts of sexual violence, but that there appears to have been no effort to investigate or punish those responsible.

The Syrian government blames the violence on terrorist groups. Authorities reportedly uncovered a plot by the Al Nusra Front of Al Qaeda to bomb mosques in Damascus, Syria's state news agency, Sana, reported yesterday.

A man accused of being involved in the suicide bomb plot, identified as Mohammed Houssam Al Sadaki, was detained on Thursday and reportedly confessed to a plan to target mosques in Damascus during yesterday's Friday prayers.

Diplomatic efforts to bring about an end to the crisis continued yesterday as the European Union stepped up sanctions against the Syrian regime, banning exports to Syria including of luxury shoes and jewels, caviar, boats and items with possible military uses. The new sanctions were apparently aimed at the upper echelons of the Syrian regime.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, denied that his country had taken part in discussions with the United States on a post-Al Assad Syria.

"If that was really said then it's not true," Mr Lavrov said yesterday. "Such discussions are not being held and cannot be held, because to decide for the Syrian people contradicts our position completely."

Moscow has come under increasing pressure from western governments to back plans to remove Mr Al Assad. Russia, along with China, has twice blocked measures to impose tougher UN action against the Syrian regime and has spoken out against foreign intervention.

Russia has been criticised for continuing arms deliveries to Syria. However, following US complaints that attack helicopters were being sent to Damascus, the Russian foreign ministry yesterday clarified the matter saying that no new deliveries of military helicopters had been made.

Rather old contracts were being honoured to repair helicopters sent to Syria "many years ago", the ministry said in a statement.



* Reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters