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Syria Crisis: Government Troops Strike Near Damascus Despite Ceasefire, U.N. Observers

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SYRIA CRISIS
In this Saturday, April 21, 2012 photo, Syrian mourners carry the bodies of an infant, Adam al Najjar, and Free Syrian Army fighter, Mowaffaq al Nablsi, 42, during their funeral in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. | AP

BEIRUT — The deployment of U.N. truce monitors brought a lull in shelling of the Syrian opposition stronghold of Homs for a second day Sunday while President Bashar Assad's troops kept up heavy attacks on other areas where observers were not present.

International envoy Kofi Annan expressed hope that despite continued violations of the cease-fire he brokered, an expanded team of up to 300 observers – up from eight now on the ground – can help end 13 months of violence and lead to talks between Assad and the opposition.

Assad has used heavy weapons to try to crush the uprising against him, prompting some of his opponents to switch from peaceful protests to attacks on soldiers. The violence has left more than 9,000 people dead, according to the U.N. At least 12 civilians and five soldiers were killed Sunday, activists and state media said.

The U.N. Security Council approved on Saturday a larger observer mission than the 250 initially envisioned. The mission was set for at least 90 days, but the Council left it up to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to decide when it will be safe enough to deploy it.

It will be the first time the U.N. has sent an unarmed mission into a conflict zone, and Western diplomats warned the team will likely fail unless the Assad regime complies with the cease-fire.

The Syrian opposition and its Western supporters suspect the regime is largely paying lip service to Annan's truce plan, in part to appease allies Russia and China while trying to dodge truce provisions that could threaten its grip, such as pulling tanks and troops from towns and allowing peaceful protests. The Syrian government hasn't complied with those terms, prompting bitter complaints from the U.N. chief last week.

Some Syrian activists were skeptical about the U.N. mission, based on the performance of the advance team that arrived last week.

"This U.N. observers thing is a big joke," said activist Mohammed Saeed. "Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes."

Saeed is a resident of the Damascus suburb of Douma, which he said was attacked Sunday by government troops firing artillery and machine guns. He said loud explosions shook the city early, causing panic among residents. Some used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to take cover in basements and in lower floors of apartment buildings.

In contrast, the central city of Homs enjoyed a second day of relative quiet, after several weeks of relentless artillery barrages by regime forces that have devastated large tracts of rebel-held areas in the city.

Five observers visited Homs for the first time Saturday, walking along debris-strewn streets lined by gutted apartment buildings. Two monitors stayed on in the city after the rest of the team returned to Damascus, said team spokesman Neeraj Singh.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the continued presence of observers in Homs is deterring regime attacks.

Local activist Salim Qabani said a mortar shell landed in the Jouret al-Shayah district of Homs, setting a home on fire. But before the observer visit, shells struck the city every few minutes on some days.

Annan expressed hope that an expanded observer mission can stabilize the situation and create the conditions for talks that would "address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people." He reiterated his demand that the government must comply with all points of the plan, including silencing heavy weapons and withdrawing from population centers.

But skeptics say the regime has overwhelming motives to stall and evade, since full compliance could hasten its overthrow. Opposition leaders have said large numbers of protesters would likely flood the streets if they no longer had to fear regime violence.

At the United Nations, diplomats warned Saturday that the enlarged observer mission faces considerable risks and exaggerated expectations.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador, noted that the unarmed observers will have to depend for security on the Syrian regime, seen as the main violator of the cease-fire.

They "will be deployed in numbers too small to cover the entire country, but large enough to give rise to expectations that will be impossible to meet if the Syrian government does not (meet) its commitments toward a sustained cessation of violence," Rice said.

Arthur Boutellis, an expert on peacekeeping missions, said unarmed observers are usually deployed only once a cease-fire has taken hold, but that in this case, the U.N. is using them to make the cease-fire stick.

"The conditions (for deploying observers) are not fully there," said Boutellis, an analyst at the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank. "That's why the U.N. and the secretary general are stretching a bit the use of observers. It's part of a political strategy."

In Cairo, the opposition Syrian National Council said the number of U.N. monitors should be increased tenfold, to at least 3,000.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the group, said after a meeting with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby that Syrian opposition factions would meet in Cairo on May 15 at the League headquarters to try and unify their ranks.

Earlier this year, the Arab League dispatched monitors to Syria, but withdrew them after a month because they were unable to halt the fighting.

On Sunday, U.N. observers visited the central city of Hama, where they met the governor, Syrian state media said. Activists said the observers also toured Rastan, a rebel-held town south of Hama.

Amateur video showed two U.N. monitors in blue helmets and body armor touring Rastan along with officers from the rebel Free Syrian Army who point to damaged buildings. A large crowd shouts "Bye Bye, Bashar!" and "The people want to topple the regime." Another video showed two white U.N. vehicles driving in Rastan accompanied by a red pickup truck with the words "Free Army" written on it.

At least 12 people were killed in regime attacks Sunday, according to the Observatory.

This included two in Douma, three in the northern province of Idlib and one in the village of Hteita where troops opened fire from a checkpoint, the group said. Six people were killed in Homs province, three of them in gunfire during raids in search of fugitives in farms near the town of Talbiseh and three in gunbattles in the Khaldiyeh and Ghouta districts of Homs, according to the Observatory.

On the government side, four soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb hit an armored personnel carrier in Douma, the group said.

The official SANA news agency said Sunday that an officer was killed and 42 others wounded in a roadside bomb that targeted their bus Sunday in northern Syria. Two other explosives were dismantled on the spot on the Raqqa-Aleppo highway, SANA said.

Syria keeps tight restrictions on foreign and local media and reports of shelling and casualties cannot be independently confirmed.

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Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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