Annan asks Syria to halt use of heavy weapons; Syrian troops storm Douma


International mediator Kofi Annan said on Sunday that the U.N. Security Council’s decision to deploy the further 300 ceasefire monitors in Syria marked a “pivotal moment for the stabilization of the country.”

In a statement issued in Geneva, he called on both Syrian government forces and opposition fighters to put down their weapons and work with the unarmed observers to consolidate the fragile ceasefire that took effect 10 days ago.

“The government in particular must desist from the use of heavy weapons and, as it has committed, withdraw such weapons and armed units from population centers and implement fully its commitments under the six-point plan,” Annan said, referring to his plan accepted by both sides to end 13 months of violence.

But Syrian troops shelled districts in a suburb of the capital Damascus, activists said early Sunday, as an advance team of United Nations observers began touring Syrian hot spots.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network says explosions in Douma, 10 kilometers northwest of Damascus, were reported early Sunday as troops stormed neighborhoods in the sprawling suburb.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two people were killed in the town of Douma and one in the village of Htaita.

Local activist Omar Hamza put the toll at four, saying two people were killed when the army shelled buildings in Douma, scene of recent protests against President Bashar al-Assad, and two were killed elsewhere in Damascus province.

Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed said tanks were shelling parts of the suburb, the scene of clashes between rebels and security forces before a cease-fire went into effect a week ago.

Saeed said two people were killed, but that could not be immediately confirmed with other activist groups.

Homs activists beg observers to stay

Meanwhile, an advance team of observers toured flashpoints on Sunday, laying the ground for a larger mission unanimously backed by the U.N. to monitor a shaky ceasefire aimed at ending bloodshed.

A video uploaded to YouTube showed four of them meeting with activists who begged them to stay in the central city. Its authenticity could not immediately be verified.

“Today is the first day since two months, exactly since 5 February... in Homs without shelling... without killing, without fire,” one unidentified activist said in the footage.

“Because of that, we want you to stay. Please stay. This is what we want. When you come, shelling stops. When you come, killing stops,” he told the observers, who wore blue helmets and bullet-proof vests marked “U.N.”

The visit came as an activist in Homs said the situation in the city was calm.

In Banias, meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight ambush on a patrol killed one security forces member and wounded three others, the first such incident in the coastal city for nearly a year.

Only days after being deployed, the team of seven observers in Syria acknowledged they faced a tough task to firm up the ceasefire agreed to last week by the embattled Assad.

U.N. vote

The U.N. Security Council voted Saturday to send an extra 300 unarmed observers to Syria, but the United States warned it may veto a new mandate for the mission.

Two members of the advance team remained in the restive city of Homs on Sunday, a mission spokesman told AFP, a day after they made their first visit to the central protest hub since being deployed in Syria a week ago.

On Saturday, the U.N. visit to Homs included a stop in Baba Amro, a rebel stronghold battered by a month-long army bombardment that killed hundreds, according to monitors, before it was retaken on March 1.

A spike in violence had already forced the Arab League to end its own Syrian monitoring mission in late January, barely a month after it was launched.

Under U.N. Resolution 2043, adopted unanimously on Saturday, 300 military observers will be sent to Syria for an initial period of 90 days if UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon determines it is safe for them to go.

The U.N. says well over 9,000 Syrians have been killed since democracy protests erupted in March 2011.

Monitors put the figure at more than 11,000, including at least 200 people killed in sporadic violence which has persisted since a U.N.-backed ceasefire went into effect on April 12.

But the 15-nation council’s move to condition deployment of observers on a U.N. assessment of compliance with the truce reflected U.S. and European concerns that Damascus’ failure to halt the violence, return troops to barracks and withdraw heavy weapons from towns makes the prospects for success slim.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the council’s decision, but cautioned that the situation in Syria was far from peaceful. He urged the government and opposition to stop fighting and make the full mission’s swift deployment possible.

In a statement from his press office late Saturday, Ban added that the government must “end all violence and human rights violations, and in particular to stop the use of heavy weapons and to withdraw such weapons and armed units from population centers.”

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari reiterated support for Annan’s peace plan, which calls for an end to all violence, deployment of a monitoring mission, and dialogue between the government and opposition for a political transition. But he made clear his government would watch the monitors closely.

“My country has a vested interested in the success of the mission,” Jaafari said, though he cautioned that “those monitors must fulfill their work on the basis of objectivity, impartiality, and professionalism.”