Syria observer chief says violence hinders mission
BEIRUT (AP) -- The head of the U.N. observers in Syria said Friday that a recent spike in bloodshed is derailing the mission to monitor and defuse more than a year of violence and could prompt the unarmed force to pull out.
The observer mission is the only functioning part of an international peace plan that Kofi Annan brokered two months ago. Western powers have pinned their hopes on the plan, in part because there are no other options on the table. There is little support for military intervention, and several rounds of sanctions have done little to stop the bloodshed.
"Violence over the past 10 days has been intensifying willingly by the both parties, with losses on both sides and significant risks to our observers," Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters in Damascus. "The escalating violence is now limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects."
Mood also said there was a concern among the states providing observers that the risk is approaching an unacceptable level for continuing the mission. He did not provide further details.
Mood's comments were a clear sign that Annan's peace plan is disintegrating. The regime and the opposition have ignored a cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect April 12.
The presence of the observers is considered critical to understanding the conflict in a country where the government prevents reporters from operating independently.
On Friday, the Syrian regime kept up a ferocious offensive on rebel areas across the country this week to reclaim territory held by rebels.
An activist in the northern city of Aleppo said troops backed by helicopters and tanks were engaged in "raging battles" in the rebel-held town of Anadan and several other locations in the province.
The violence did not stop thousands of Syrians in Aleppo city, and other areas throughout the country from demonstrating against President Bashar Assad on Friday. They marched from mosques, gathered in town squares, chanted, sang and danced against the regime.
"Even if I die, I will still be a rebel," sang the leader of a demonstration in the northern city of Idlib, according to amateur video. "Oh Bashar, you will flee."
Eight protesters were killed in the southern town of Busra al-Sham after Syrian forces fired a shell near the Khaled Bin Walid mosque, according to activists and amateur videos that appeared to show bloodied men sprawled lifeless on a street.
The video could not be independently verified.
More than 20 people were reported killed when security forces opened fire on protests across the country, but the toll could not be independently verified.
One area that Syrian forces have recently reclaimed is Haffa, which they overran on Wednesday. They pushed out hundreds of rebels from the town in the coastal Latakia province, after intense battles that lasted eight days.
U.N. observers entered the nearly deserted town Thursday and found smoldering buildings, looted shops, smashed cars and a strong stench of death, according to U.N. spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh.
The siege of Haffa, a Sunni-populated village, had become a focus of international concern because of fears the uprising against the Assad regime is evolving into a sectarian civil war pitting the president's minority Alawite sect against the majority Sunnis and other groups. Recent mass killings in other Sunni-populated areas have fueled those concerns.
U.N. observers have reported a steep rise in violence in Syria in recent weeks.
On Friday, Mood said there appears to be a lack of willingness to seek a peaceful transition.
"Instead there is a push toward advancing military positions," he said.
"What we have seen on the ground is that the attacks by the armed opposition on official buildings and government checkpoints are becoming more effective and the government is taking great losses," he said.
Activists say some 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
An international rights watchdog, meanwhile, accused Syrian government forces of using sexual violence to torture men, women and boys detained during the uprising. In a report released Friday, The New York-based Human Rights Watch also quoted witnesses and victims as saying that soldiers and pro-government armed militias sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.
"Sexual violence in detention is one of many horrific weapons in the Syrian government's torture arsenal and Syrian security forces regularly use it to humiliate and degrade detainees with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
HRW said it does not have evidence that high-ranking officers commanded their troops to commit sexual violence but said it had information indicating that no action has been taken to investigate or punish government forces who did.
Also Friday, Syrian opposition members began a two-day meeting in Turkey to discuss a vision for a post-Assad Syria and steps need to be taken to ensure a transition to democracy. The meeting was headed by the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council.
"The international community must take initiative and they must do whatever is necessary to save the civilian population -- whether it's a security zone or a security corridor -- whatever it is, it must be done in order to help civilians," said Mahmoud Osman, an SNC member.