Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army intensified shelling of Sunni Muslim regions in central and northern Syria on Sunday, killing at least 50 people and wounding hundreds hours after UN monitors suspended their work, opposition activists said.
The monitors’ decision on Saturday was the clearest sign yet that a peace plan brokered by international mediator Kofi Annan had collapsed after repeated violations by al-Assad’s forces and rebels backing a Sunni-led revolt across the country.
Meanwhile, the head of the UN observers’ mission in the country demanded that warring parties allow the evacuation of women, children, elderly and sick people endangered by the fighting in the besieged city of Homs and other combat zones.
“Around 85 percent of Homs is now under shelling or bombardment with mortar rounds and heavy machineguns,” opposition campaigner Abu Imad told Reuters by telephone from the city, about 140km north of Damascus.
“Dozens of wounded are without treatment because all the hospitals have fallen under the control of shabbiha [ghosts],” Imad said, referring to militiamen loyal to al-Assad. “The dead are the lucky ones.”
Major General Robert Mood said the observers had been trying for the past week to extricate civilians and the wounded from the central city of Homs, but had failed because neither government troops nor the rebels were willing to hold their fire.
“The parties must reconsider their position and allow women, children, the elderly and the injured to leave conflict zones without any preconditions and ensure their safety,” Mood said in a statement.
UN “attempts to extract civilians from the line of fire over the past week have been unsuccessful,” he added.
“This requires willingness on both sides to respect and protect the human life of the Syrian people,” Mood said.
A UN official said earlier on Sunday that a team of observers had left Damascus for Homs, hoping to evacuate civilians. The plan was not made public for fear that would compromise the mission. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said the plan was to arrange a very brief ceasefire of up to 90 minutes during which the civilians would have been evacuated from rebel-held areas of Homs through a safe corridor. He said the mission was approved by the Syrian government.
An opposition activist, Mohammed al-Homsi, said: “Since the [UN] observers stopped working yesterday [Saturday], we have seen a clear escalation.”