Syrian activists: Homs calm as observers expected

April 21, 2012 - 3:48 AM
Switzerland Syria Humanitarian Forum

Ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of Syria to Geneva Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, center, answers questions from the media after the Syrian Humanitarian Forum at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, April 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi)

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say fighting and government shelling has stopped in Syria's central city of Homs in advance of an expected visit by U.N. observers.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Homs is peaceful for the first time in more than a week.

Salim Qabani, an activist based in the central province of Homs, said Saturday that troops are hiding armored vehicles. He says tanks were pulled off the streets and into a police base.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that technically went into effect last week has been steadily unraveling. Regime forces had shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in Homs and opposition fighters were reported to have ambushed government troops.

The Observatory said they had no reports of violence through most of Syria on Saturday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops fired tear gas and bullets on thousands of protesters who spilled out of mosques after noon prayers Friday, activists said. State media reported that bombs and shootings killed 17 soldiers as the latest diplomatic efforts failed to halt more than 13 months of bloodshed in the country.

Opposition activists reported that at least 11 Syrian civilians were killed in regime shelling and other attacks Friday, the main day of the week for protests calling for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations hopes to have 30 observers in Syria next week to monitor the tenuous cease-fire between regime troops and opposition, and the Security Couincil reached a tentative agreement Friday night on plans for the deployment of up to a total of 300.

An advance team of seven monitors, whose presence set off anti-Assad marches that prompted gunfire from security forces in at least two areas earlier this week, did not venture out Friday.

The U.N. is also trying to ramp up its humanitarian response and send more food, medicine and aid workers to Syria, said John Ging, the head of emergency response at the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"The whole infrastructure of the country is under strain," Ging said. He added that the Syrian regime has finally acknowledged that there is a "serious humanitarian need" and that he hopes this will ease the aid mission.

Ging said the idea is to help one million people over six months with food, medical assistance and emergency supplies.

U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said the World Food Program, through the Syrian Red Crescent, had given food to about 100,000 Syrians in need, a figure expected to double in a month.

The U.N. estimates some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced and more than 9,000 killed since the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted more than a year ago. The revolt began with largely peaceful protests, but has grown increasingly violent as the opposition has taken up arms in response to a brutal regime crackdown.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that technically went into effect last week has been steadily unraveling, with regime forces continuing to shell rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs and opposition fighters ambushing government troops. Still, the truce is still seen as the most viable way to end the bloodshed, simply for a lack of other options.

Western powers have called for Assad's ouster, but the Syrian leader has dug in, unleashing his military on an ill-equipped and fractured opposition, and there appears to be little appetite in the international community to try to dislodge him by force with an operation similar to the one that helped topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi last year.

Instead, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Thursday for the U.N. Security Council to adopt an arms embargo and other tough measures against Syria. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took a hard line against Damascus, saying Syria was not honoring the cease-fire and that violence was escalating.

As part of the truce, Assad was to withdraw troops and tanks from urban centers and allow peaceful anti-regime marches, which the opposition has staged every Friday since the uprising began. He has ignored both provisions and continued attacking opposition strongholds, though the overall level of violence is down compared to the period before the truce.

On Friday, protests were reported in the capital Damascus and its suburbs, as well as in the northern city of Aleppo, the central regions of Hama and Homs, in eastern towns near the border with Iraq and in the southern province of Daraa. Demonstrators spilled out from mosques onto the streets, calling for Assad's downfall and chanting in support of the country's rebel forces, activists said.

"Security is extremely tight in Damascus," said activist Maath al-Shami, adding that despite the heavy presence of plainclothes security agents, there were protests in the capital's neighborhoods of Qaboun, Midan, Barzeh and Mazzeh.

He said troops fired in the air to disperse the protesters. Activists also said troops fired bullets and tear gas at protesters in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, as well as the central city of Hama. They had no immediate word on casualties.

In the rebel-held Khaldiyeh neighborhood in the central city of Homs, which has become the heart of the uprising, a mortar round was striking every five minutes, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. An amateur video posted online by activists showed thick black smoke billowing as shells fell in a residential area.

The Observatory said eight civilians were killed in Homs on Friday, including a family of three whose home was struck by a shell. The group reported three more civilians were killed by army fire in other parts of Syria.

Citing its network of sources on the ground, the group said explosions and the crackle of gunfire rang out in the town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon. Activists said the government was sending reinforcements to the town.

Meanwhile, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said a large roadside bomb went off in the southern village of Sahm al-Golan, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, killing 10 soldiers. A separate explosion, also in southern Syria, killed five troops, the agency said, adding that two more soldiers were killed in separate shooting attacks.

In Paris, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Friday that the international community has to live up to its responsibilities in Syria and prepare for the possible failure of an increasingly fragile cease-fire. He told France's BFM television that if special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan "doesn't function, we have to envisage other methods."

Clinton referred during the Paris meeting to a resolution under the U.N. Charter that would be militarily enforceable.

"We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan," she said.

Her comments were welcomed by the Syrian opposition Friday.

"The fact that Mrs. Clinton talked about this resolution (Chapter 7) shows that the international community is preparing to take stronger action against this cruel regime," said Fawaz Zakri, an Istanbul-based member of the Syrian National Council.

Any attempt to push for U.N. sanctions on Syria would likely meet resistance from Syrian allies Russia and China, which hold vetoes in the Security Council. Moscow and Beijing have already twice shielded Syria from U.N. sanctions over the crackdown.

Ban has recommended the Security Council quickly approve a 300-member U.N. observer mission to Syria, a number larger than what was originally envisioned. But he said he will review ground developments before deciding when to deploy the mission.

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Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Geneva, Switzerland, and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.