U.N. calls for access to Syria conflict zones as helicopters shell rebel strongholds

Reports of high daily death tolls are becoming the norm in Syria where over 14,000 people have been killed since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March 2011, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory. (Reuters)

More deaths have been reported in Syria while United Nations leader Ban Ki-moon demanded U.N. access to the Syrian city of al-Haffa, as regime helicopters fired on rebel stronghold towns, leaving more than 100 people dead.

Regime forces rained shells on rebel positions in northwestern Latakia province on Tuesday, pounding for the eighth straight day the town of al-Haffa as they prepared to storm it, monitors said.

As many as 36 people have been killed by the Syrian government forces, mostly in Deir Ezzor, Al Arabiya reported citing the Syrian Revolution General Commission.

On the political front, the newly elected leader of Syria’s exiled opposition urged President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy, in line with a plan based on a U.N.-backed transition in Yemen.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. (Reuters)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nationwide violence cost the lives of at least 106 people on Monday, including 77 civilians and 23 Syrian troops, according to AFP.

Reports of high daily death tolls are becoming the norm in Syria where over 14,000 people have been killed since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March 2011, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory.

Intensive military operations

U.N. leader Ban said in a statement released by his office late Monday that “intensive military operations” by government forces against Homs and firing from helicopters on other towns had caused heavy civilian casualties.

Residents and activists say government helicopter gunships have strafed rebel positions in al-Haffa, a town of 30,000 near the border with Turkey, and tanks were parked on the outskirts.

Ban joined U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in demanding that unarmed military observers from the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, UNSMIS, be let into al-Haffa.

One Syrian activist broke down in tears as she told AFP via Skype that tanks were parked on the edge of al-Haffa, a town of 30,000 set in rugged countryside near Turkey.

“They have never come this close before,” Sem Nassar said, adding: “There’s only one doctor working to treat the wounded in the town,” and that most residents had fled.

Washington concerned over Syria atrocities

 From every angle the situation in Syria is enormously complex and tragic. There is no silver bullet 
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Such reports prompted Washington to voice concerns Assad’s regime is planning to carry out new atrocities, after the massacre of 55 people last week in al-Qubeir and at least 108 near al-Houla on May 25-26.

“The United States joins joint special envoy Kofi Annan in expressing deep alarm by reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organizing another massacre,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Meanwhile U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted that there is “no silver bullet” to fix what he called a tragic, complex situation in Syria, but renewed calls for the regime to relinquish power.

Speaking to members of the American-Turkish Council, Panetta said President Assad’s forces had perpetrated “outrageous violence.”

“From every angle the situation in Syria is enormously complex and tragic. There is no silver bullet,” said Panetta, according to a prepared text of his speech.

His remarks highlight that the Pentagon chief and President Barack Obama’s administration remain reluctant to back military intervention in Syria.

Russia has strongly opposed the prospect of force to remove Assad, whose family has been a key ally of Moscow since the Cold War.

A spokesman for U.N.-Arab League envoy Annan said he was “gravely concerned by the latest reports of violence coming out of Syria and the escalation of fighting” by both sides.

The former U.N. chief, who drew up a faltering peace plan, was referring to shelling in Homs and the reported use of mortars, helicopters and tanks in al-Haffa.

Bloodshed persists

 U.N. observers reported heavy fighting in Rastan and Talbiseh, north of (Homs), with artillery and mortar shelling, as well as firing from helicopters, machine guns and smaller arms 
U.N. spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh

The bloodshed has persisted despite the presence of 300 U.N. observers charged with monitoring a putative April 12 truce.

The outside world, divided in its approach towards President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on a 15-month-old uprising, has been unable to halt the violence despite broad international support for Annan’s tattered peace plan.

“U.N. observers reported heavy fighting in Rastan and Talbiseh, north of (Homs), with artillery and mortar shelling, as well as firing from helicopters, machine guns and smaller arms,” U.N. spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said in a statement, according to Reuters.

It was the first time the U.N. monitors have verified repeated allegations by activists that Assad’s forces have fired from helicopters in the military crackdown on rebels. Syria’s government is the only force in the conflict equipped with helicopters.

The observers “also received reports of a large number of civilians, including women and children trapped inside (Homs) and are trying to mediate their evacuation,” Ghosheh said.

U.N. observers reported Free Syrian Army rebels captured army soldiers, she added, calling on “all sides to stop the killing and human rights abuses to ensure the protection of civilians and to respect international law.”

Activists said Khaldiyeh and two other neighborhoods were under siege and Red Crescent teams were denied access.

The Observatory’s Rami Abdul Rahman said assaults elsewhere, such as the central province of Hama and northwestern Idlib, showed “the regime has decided to escalate militarily.”

Annan’s peace plan faltering

U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. (Reuters)

With Annan’s peace plan faltering, world powers are divided on how to stop the crisis. The West has called for tougher sanctions and for Assad’s departure, while Russia and China reject any foreign interference.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Iran on Wednesday to discuss a Moscow conference on Syria, among other issues.

France said it will talk to Russia about the idea, as it urged the new head of the Syrian National Council, Abdul Basset Sayda, to unite the opposition.

Sayda called on Assad to “leave office to his vice president” Farouq al-Sharaa, Anatolia news agency reported.

Russia is under growing pressure to back Assad’s departure as a first step in a peace accord that would see his inner circle assume command in the interim, as happened in a U.N.-backed transition in Yemen.

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 10,000 people in the crackdown on an uprising inspired by revolts which toppled four Arab leaders last year. Syrian authorities say foreign-backed militants have killed 2,600 soldiers and police.

Rebels have grown increasingly well-armed in recent weeks, both through increased smuggling of weapons and through defections of soldiers who bring their weapons with them.

On Sunday rebels briefly seized control of a strategic army base and threatened to fire its surface-to-air missiles at Assad’s palace, before being forced to withdraw by an army counter-attack.

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