Syrian forces pound Damascus suburb as truce crumbles

Syrian forces pound Damascus suburb as truce crumbles

UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan hopes peace monitors can still save cease-fire, but Syria reportedly rejecting observers by nationality

Syrian protestors gather around UN observers during their visit in Douma near the capital of Damascus, Syria. (photo credit: AP Photo)
Syrian protestors gather around UN observers during their visit in Douma near the capital of Damascus, Syria. (photo credit: AP Photo)

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Syrian troops are attacking a Damascus suburb with mortar shells and machine guns, one day after special envoy Kofi Annan described the situation in Syria as “bleak” but held out hope UN monitors can make a cease-fire stick.

The activists say Wednesday’s bombardment targeted the suburb of Douma that came under heavy regime fire a day earlier.

Douma resident Mohammed Saeed says the suburb has been without electricity for a day and civilians are seeking cover on lower floors of apartment buildings. The Local Coordination Committees, an activists’ network, confirmed Douma is under attack.

Annan said Tuesday that he hopes the speedy deployment of 300 UN observers can gradually halt the violence. Currently, 11 monitors are in Syria.

But reports out of the U.N. indicate Syria is demanding the right to vet the nationality of observers, according to U.S. envoy Susan Rice, who cited a briefing by U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous, according to Reuters.

Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly wants to bar any observers who come from countries in the Friends of Syria group, which is aligned with the rebel movement.

Syrian troops heavily shelled a suburb of the capital on Tuesday, and satellite imagery showed that Syria has failed to withdraw all of its heavy weapons from populated areas as required by a cease-fire deal, an official said.

The shelling came hours after rebels seeking to topple Assad killed three regime officers in separate attacks around Damascus, activists and state media said, the latest violence targeting the security forces used by the government to quash dissent.

A bomb hidden in an army truck also exploded in the capital, wounding several people.

The persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a UN team of observers to salvage a truce that started to unravel almost as soon as it began on April 12. Despite the violence, the international community still sees the peace plan put forward by envoy Kofi Annan as the last chance to prevent the country from falling into civil war — in part because there are no real alternatives.

Despite the bombardment, UN monitors visited the restive Damascus suburb of Douma on Tuesday, their second visit in two days.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group called Tuesday’s barrage the “most violent shelling” of Douma since the crisis began adding that the violence left eight people dead and more than 100 wounded. The group also said that troops shelled the nearby suburb of Harasta.

Amateur videos posted online showed smoke rising into the sky as a result of the shelling.

“We are dying,” shouted Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed through Skype. “The observers are conspiring against us. Yesterday they refused to go with us to show them where the tanks are being hidden.”

Annan, who was giving a speech in Sweden and briefing the UN Security Council in New York, called on the Syrian government to fully implement its commitments under the truce, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told UN reporters in Geneva.

“This means withdrawal of all heavy armory (weapons) from population centers and (sending them) back to the barracks. They are claiming that this has happened. Satellite imagery, however, and credible reports show that this has not fully happened, so this is unacceptable,” Fawzi said.

Fawzi added that Annan is aware that when the UN monitors enter conflict areas in Syria that “the guns are silent,” then “when they leave, the exchanges start again.” He added there appear to be cases of Syrians being targeted by authorities after approaching UN observers monitoring the truce. Fawzi called the situation “totally unacceptable.”

The observers also returned to the central city of Hama, where regime forces killed more than 30 people on Monday. The killings were apparently in retaliation for a large rally to welcome the team during a visit on Sunday.

An amateur video showed two women appealing to the team’s head, Col. Ahmed Himiche, for protection.

“They slaughtered us! Our children are gone! Burning and killing and slaughter!” one woman yells, preventing Himiche from shutting the door of his white UN Land Cruiser. “If you really came as observers for us, have mercy on us!”

Team spokesman Neeraj Singh said the team also visited the city of Homs, where two observers are staying, and that two would remain in Hama.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an intelligence officer was shot dead in the northeastern Barzeh neighborhood of the capital Damascus. Also Tuesday, the state news service said “terrorists” shot to death a retired lieutenant colonel and his brother, a chief warrant officer, in an area southwest of the capital.

Inside the city, explosives planted in an army truck blew up as the vehicle traveled through downtown, leaving a hole in its roof and blood and shattered glass on the road. The truck’s driver and two passengers in a nearby car were injured and taken to a hospital.

The state news service said an “armed terrorist group” planted explosives under the driver’s side.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Activists said at least 11 people were killed in Syrian Tuesday.

The 11-person UN team is in Syria to observe the cease-fire and prepare for a total of 300 monitors to arrive later.

The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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