The Syrian regime widened shelling attacks on opposition strongholds yesterday, activists said, targeting a second town in a new sign that a UN-brokered ceasefire is quickly unraveling despite the presence of foreign observers.
The truce is part of an international plan to launch talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and those trying to topple him. An uprising against al-Assad erupted 13 months ago, but became increasingly violent in response to a regime crackdown.
Regime compliance with the ceasefire has been partial, and the latest escalation further lowered expectations that the key element of special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan can stick.
Annan, joint emissary for the UN and the Arab League, was to travel to Doha, Qatar, yesterday to brief the Arab League on the situation.
Diplomats and finance ministry officials from the Arab world, the West and elsewhere also were meeting yesterday in Paris to coordinate sanctions against the al-Assad regime. Diplomats say a string of EU, US and other sanctions are affecting al-Assad by curbing Syria’s ability to export oil and the ability of his cronies to do business abroad.
A six-member advance team of UN observers arrived in Damascus over the weekend, but hasn’t traveled to hotspots yet. UN officials said the team is still devising a plan on where to go and whom to meet.
In Damascus, the head of the observer team, Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, yesterday said it would take time to get to the hardest hit areas.
“There should be coordination and planning and we should move ... step by step,” he said. “It’s not an easy process.”
In violence yesterday, army tanks shelled the southern town of Busra al-Harir, killing at least two people, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group. The town, about 70km south of the capital of Damascus, is a stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Regime forces also shelled the Khaldiyeh neighborhood in the central city of Homs, a center of the rebellion against al-Assad, according to the Observatory. The regime appeared to be pushing to take control of the last rebel-held districts in Homs, said activists in the city.
Meanwhile, Russia yesterday accused unspecified external forces of seeking to undermine Annan’s efforts to end the bloodshed, saying support for government foes was threatening a fragile ceasefire.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov suggested armed opponents of al-Assad’s government were largely to blame for persistent violence.
“There are those who want Kofi Annan’s plan to fail,” Lavrov said in televised remarks. “Today, those who ... from the beginning foretold the failure of Annan’s plan are doing a lot to see to it that this prophecy comes true.”
“They are doing this by delivering arms to the Syrian opposition and stimulating the activity of rebels who continue to attack both government facilities and ... civilian facilities on a daily basis,” he said.
“Of course, government forces are also taking measures to react to such provocations, and as a result it is not all going very smoothly yet,” said Lavrov, who called the ceasefire “quite fragile.”
Additional reporting by Reuters