UN approves Syria ceasefire observers
The UN Security Council has approved a resolution to send military observers to monitor an internationally-brokered ceasefire amid reports of fresh violence by the Syrian regime.
The unanimous Security Council vote came as activists said Syrian troops shelled two rebel-held neighbourhoods in the central city of Homs on Saturday in an apparent violation of the deal.
The resolution calls for an advance team of up to 30 unarmed military observers to initiate contacts with both the Syrian government and opposition groups in order to begin implementation of "a full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties."
A spokesman for UN Syria mediator Kofi Annan said on Saturday afternoon that an initial team of six ceasefire monitors is due to arrive in Syria within 24 hours, with more to follow within days.
Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former ambassador to the UN, told CBC News the observers are likely to be drawn from people already in the vicinity of Syria. Even though they are officially unarmed, they may carry sidearms, he added.
Heinbecker said the moment the movements of the observers are restricted, the UN will have to pull them out because "that's what they did with the Arab League and it turned into a farce."
The League halted its observer mission at the end of January because of large-scale shelling by Syrian forces, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.
"It could get worse before it gets better," added Heinbecker.
The UN vote went ahead only after Russia's proposed revisions to the draft resolution were included. CBC reporter Melissa Kent, who is in New York at the UN, called the vote "significant" as it had full backing from Syria's allies — Russia and China.
"They support Kofi Annan and his mission to Syria," said Kent.
The resolution obliges the Syrian regime to protect the UN mission and the people with whom they are in contact.
"The Syrian government must guarantee the safety of the advance team without prejudice to freedom of movement [and] allowing them free and private communication," noted Kent, who also said the observers could be on the ground within a day.
"Individuals can not be subject to retaliation for their interaction with the mission."
While some are hailing Russia's change of heart, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin warned against too much interference by the international community.
"Out of respect for the sovereignty of Syria we have cautioned against destructive attempts at external interference or imposing any kind of illusory fixes," he said.
Since the truce brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan came into effect, far fewer deaths have been reported than from the daily norm of clashes and shelling before the truce.
The regime restricts access of foreign observers, including journalists, making it difficult to verify reports of violence independently.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling on Saturday morning in Homs lasted for about an hour and there were no reports of casualties. It said another wave of mortar rounds hit the neighbourhoods later in the day.
Shells still raining on Homs
Activist Tarek Badrakhan, who is based in the rebel-held Homs neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh, and the Observatory said the shelling targeted the neighbourhoods of Jouret el-Shayah and Qarabees.
In Homs, which has been one of the hardest hit areas in Syria in the past 13 months and became the symbol of Syria's uprising, the sporadic shelling started Friday night and continued into Saturday morning, Badrakhan said.
"I can see black smoke billowing from a building that was hit in Jouret el-Shayah," Badrakhan told The Associated Press via Skype.
A video posted by activist online said to be taken in Homs showed shells landing in a heavily damaged street.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group said troops fired live bullets and tear gas at a funeral in the northern city of Aleppo. It had no word on casualties. The Observatory said three people were wounded in the shooting at the funeral.
Also, troops were conducting a wave of arrests in the Damascus suburb of Dumair when a car exploded killing one civilian and wounding two others, the Observatory said. It gave no further details.
The Syrian state media reported apparent rebel attacks. State-run news agency SANA said gunmen on Saturday kidnapped army Col. Mohammed Eid in a suburb of the central city of Hama while on his way to work.
It also reported that gunmen stormed the house of local politician Mohammed Ismail al-Ahmad in the northern town of Tin and shot him, then took him to an unknown location, SANA said. The agency said Ahmad had been planning to run for parliament.
Rallies held across Syria
On Friday, Syrian forces have used live fire, tear gas and clubs to beat back tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets across the country in powerful and often jubilant displays of defiance.
But the reported death toll from the rallies — six people — was much less than the usual for a Friday, where demonstrators spill out onto the streets after midday prayers. The rallies meanwhile were described as some of the largest in months.
Other incidents after the ceasefire went into effect included 20 people wounded when security forces opened fire at protesters in the southern village of Jassim late Friday, activists said.
Gunmen shot dead Shia Muslim cleric Sayyed Nasser al-Elwi in the Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zeinab late Friday, Syria-based activist Mohammed Suleiman Khalil said. The Observatory confirmed the killing. It was not clear why the cleric was killed but many in the opposition see members of the Shia minority sect as supporters of President Bashar Assad's regime.
The ceasefire, which formally took effect Thursday, is at the centre of Annan's peace plan, which is aimed at ending more than a year of bloodshed that has killed over 9,000 people, according to the United Nations, and to launch inclusive Syrian-led talks on the country's political future.
In Germany, the Der Spiegel weekly said the German government said it was looking into a report that weapons bound for the Syrian regime were loaded onto a German-owned ship. Der Spiegel said the Atlantic Cruiser was halted in the Mediterranean after its owners were warned it was suspected to be carrying Iranian military equipment to Tartus, Syria.
Der Spiegel quoted shipping agent Torsten Lueddeke of Hamburg-based C.E.G. Bulk Chartering as saying the ship was chartered to Ukraine-based White Whale Shipping, and they said the ship was carrying pumps and similar equipment.