Syria and U.N. sign agreement on ceasefire monitoring mission

Syrian soldiers have continued to pound areas with artillery after an initial lull following the truce. The ongoing attacks have dimmed hopes for U.N.-Arab League Kofi Annan’s plan. (AFP)

Syria and the United Nations signed an agreement on Thursday on the terms of a ceasefire monitoring mission, a Reuters witness at the Foreign Ministry in Damascus said.

A statement from the U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan said the Syrian government and the United Nations had agreed on a basis for the deployment of more observers.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called for 300 monitors to be sent on a three-month observation mission to Syria saying there was a “chance for progress” despite the government’s failure to implement a peace plan.

Ban said in a report to the U.N. Security Council that the proposed mission “would greatly contribute to observing and upholding the commitment of the parties to a cessation of armed violence in all its forms.”

He also said that a “clear signal” must be sent to Syria about the need for full truce, and called for the need of “impartial monitoring.”

“Developments since 12 April underline the importance of sending a clear message to the authorities that a cessation of armed violence must be respected in full, and that action is needed on all aspects of (Annan’s) six-point (peace) plan,” he told the council.

“The Syrian Government has yet to fully implement its initial obligations regarding the actions and deployments of its troops, or to return them to barracks,” he added.

“At the same time the very fragility of the situation underscores the importance of putting in place arrangements that can allow impartial supervision and monitoring.”

He warned that violent incidents and reports of casualties have escalated in Syria and that both the Syrian government and rebels need to be committed to the truce.

“Violent incidents and reports of casualties have escalated again in recent days, with reports of shelling of civilian areas and abuses by Government forces,” he said. “The Government reports violent actions by armed groups.”

An advance team of monitors in Syria had visited the southern town of Deraa and “enjoyed freedom of movement” there, he said. However, he noted that “the team’s initial request to visit Homs was not granted, with officials claiming security concerns.”

China said on Thursday it was considering sending observers to monitor a week-old truce in Syria that has so far failed to put an end to a year of bloodshed.

China is “seriously studying” the idea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a daily news briefing.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma prepare aid for Homs citizens at al-Fahya stadium in Damascus in this handout photograph taken April 16, 2012 and released on April 18, 2012 by Syria’s national news agency SANA. (Reuters)

On Wednesday, plainclothes Syrian security agents opened fire at anti-regime protesters near the cars of U.N. monitors in a Damascus suburb, a witness said. Amateur video showed people ducking for cover as gunshots rang out.

The videos could not be independently confirmed. But the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian security forces fired at protesters in the suburb of Arbeen, wounding eight.

Wednesday’s shooting raised concern for the safety of the monitors. Under a plan brokered by Annan, six observers arrived in Syria over the weekend as an advance team for a larger contingent meant to shore up a week-old cease-fire that has been buckling under regime assaults on opposition strongholds and several bombings and shootings by the rebels. The truce was supposed to pave the way for talks between Assad and the opposition trying to topple him.

Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fazwi, confirmed that the U.N. observers were in Arbeen on Wednesday. He said it would be “appalling” if it was confirmed Syrian forces opened fire in the area.

Annan’s plan is seen as a last hope for reversing Syria’s slide toward civil war after a 13-month-old uprising to oust president Assad killed more than 9,000 people, according to the U.N.

Despite persistent violence, the international community is reluctant to declare the cease-fire dead, in part because it is seen as the only way to end bloodshed in Syria. Other options, such as foreign military intervention, arming Assad’s opponents and economic sanctions, have either been discarded or offer no quick solution. A deadlocked international community would be hard put to offer an alternative if it were to acknowledge the collapse of the truce.

Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem during his China visit on Wednesday promised that the regime would respect the cease-fire and withdraw troops from urban centers in line with Annan’s peace plan. However, the regime has so far ignored last week’s deadline to get tanks and troops off the streets.

Instead, Syrian soldiers continued to pound rebellious areas with artillery after an initial lull of about one day at the start the truce. The ongoing attacks have dimmed hopes for Annan’s plan.

Activists said regime forces fired mortar shells again at Homs, killing at least two civilians and sending thick gray smoke into the air as loud booms rang across residential areas. Homs has been battered by artillery for weeks, with just a brief respite at the start of the cease-fire.

Still Moallem insisted Syria is keeping its commitments. Syria will “continue to cooperate” with Annan’s efforts, the Chinese Foreign Ministry quoted Moallem as saying after he met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing.

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