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Syria regime tightens chokehold on Homs as UN halts work

Opposition demands deployment of armed UN observers as overall weekend death toll across the country rises to 80

A member of the UN observer team prepares to board a vehicle in Damascus
Image Credit: AFP
A member of the United Nations observer team prepares to board a vehicle, damaged during previous excursions, outside their hotel in Damascus.
Gulf News

Damascus: Syrian troops on Sunday tightened their grip on the flashpoint city of Homs as the opposition demanded the deployment of armed peacekeepers after UN observers halted their work because of bloodshed.

Violence cost at least another 11 lives on Sunday, taking the overall weekend death toll across the unrest-swept country to 80, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Among them was a civilian killed in the rebel bastion of Khalidiya, which, like other parts of Homs, was “being shelled and shot at by regime forces who have been trying to enter these districts for several days,” it said.

Speaking to AFP via Skype from the Old City neighbourhood of Homs, opposition activist Abu Bilal said the regime assault on several parts of the central city was “suffocating.”

“They are shelling us all the time. There’s very little food and water, and we’re running out of medication.”

Abu Bilal reiterated fears expressed by the opposition and rights watchdogs that, should regime forces enter the besieged districts, people trapped inside them “will be massacred.”

Dozens of civilians were wounded in the Old City, “and many of them will die if they don’t get treatment as we can’t get any of the injured out,” he warned.

Amateur video posted online by anti-regime activists in the Homs district of Jourat Al Shiah showed widespread destruction, deserted streets and parts of a building shelled and on fire.

“We don’t have any milk for the children, nor water, nor electricity,” a mother of two whose house was destroyed tells the unidentified cameraman. “We just want a way to get our children out of here.”

The Observatory had reported on Saturday that more than 1,000 families were trapped in Homs, and that there was a lack of medical staff and equipment.

Home to rebel hideouts, Homs has been under intermittent attack by regime forces ever since its district of Baba Amr was relentlessly pounded for a month earlier this year and retaken by the regime.

The exiled Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition group called on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to arm the observers.

“At a time when the regime is committing its worst crimes against the Syrian people, we are surprised by the UN observers’ decision to suspend their work, because of what they described as ‘an intensification’ of violence’,” the SNC said in a statement.

The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, or UNSMIS, suspended its operations two months into its three-month mandate on Saturday, blaming the intensifying violence.

The observers were progressively deployed starting in mid-April to monitor a UN-backed but widely flouted ceasefire, and were even likened to “sitting ducks in a shooting gallery” by Susan Rice, the US envoy to the United Nations.

The SNC urged the Security Council to “intervene quickly, and to pass a resolution under Chapter VII (of the UN Charter) to arm the UN monitors, so that they can defend themselves... and ensure that the regime stops killing, while enforcing [UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s] peace plan.”

Explaining his mission’s suspension, Major-General Robert Mood spoke of an escalation in fighting and of the risk to his 300-strong UN team, as well as a “lack of willingness” for peace by the warring parties.

“There has been an intensification of armed violence across Syria over the past ten days,” Mood said in a statement on Saturday.

“This escalation is limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects — basically impeding our ability to carry out our mandate,” he said.

“In this high risk situation, UNSMIS is suspending its activities,” Mood said.

The observers “will not conduct patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice,” he said, adding that “engagement with the parties will be restricted.”

Mood said the suspension would be reviewed daily, and that “operations will resume when we see the situation fit for us to carry out our mandated activities.”

Syria’s foreign ministry said it “understands” the decision, stressing that “armed terrorist groups” had been threatening its members.

The United States said the decision marked a “critical juncture” for Syria and that it was discussing with its allies the way ahead for a “political transition” as set out in two UN Security Council resolutions.

“At this critical juncture, we are consulting with our international partners regarding next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition as called for in Security Council Resolutions 2042 and 2043,” a White House official said.

Resolutions 2042 and 2043 addressed the observers’ deployment under the Annan plan aimed at “facilitating a Syrian-led political transition” that leads to democracy, among other conditions.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed “regret” at the suspension, saying that it “calls into serious question the viability of the UN mission.”

His Turkish counterpart Ahmad Davutoglu called for tougher UN action.

“In the event that this observer mission pulls back, there is need for the UN Security Council to immediately do a situation assessment and take a new measure to ensure the humanitarian tragedy does not move onto a next level,” he said.