UN needs more Syria observers

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A United Nations mission to oversee an end to violence in Syria may need to bring in its own aircraft and deploy more troops to ensure that a firm ceasefire takes hold throughout the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday.

The six-day-old truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week. But in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa the army continues to attack and battle rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.

Ban said the ceasefire was being "generally observed" although there was still violence. But a planned mission of some 250 observers would be "not enough considering the current situation and the vastness of the country".

He said in Luxembourg that the U.N. was asking the European Union to provide helicopters and planes for the operation, which he would propose formally to the Security Council on Wednesday.

It was not clear whether Assad would agree to allow more U.N. troops and foreign aircraft into the country. The protocol for the mission - which must have Syrian consent - is being worked out in Damascus by a team of U.N. peacekeeping officers.

The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the "wisdom and the viability of sending in the full monitoring presence" of 250 would be in question if violence did not stop.

An Arab League monitoring mission was aborted in January after just a month in country because of daily shooting and shelling. But during its short life it emboldened Syrians to resume anti-Assad street protests - an effect the government is not likely to relish having repeated.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, relaying reports from anti-Assad activists, said at least two people were killed and dozens wounded by shelling on Tuesday as troops sought to take control of Basr al-Harir in the southern province of Deraa. Activists say the town has been a rebel stronghold.

In the northern Idlib province, the army fired mortars and machine guns in two villages, killing three people. Army mortars pounded targets in the Khalidiya and Bayada districts of Homs, where the artillery assault resumed on Saturday two days after the truce came into force. Streets of Homs held by rebels earlier this year now resemble scenes from World War Two.

Assad, who agreed a peace plan with U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan more than three weeks ago, has not yet fulfilled its primary demand - that tanks, troops and big guns be withdrawn from populated areas and all forms of violence cease.

The Observatory said 23 people were killed on Monday, the first day of work for the U.N. advance team of six.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria's powerful, Russian-armed forces. But other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war threatening the wider region.

The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that would likely require at least 50,000 troops and a U.N. mandate to use force.


The small U.N. team, led by Moroccan colonel Ahmed Himmiche and including General Abhijit Guha, the Deputy Military Adviser in the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, is operating from an existing U.N. office in Damascus.

The Assad government says that - as with the Arab League operation - all of the unarmed U.N. mission's "steps on the ground" must be coordinated with the state for its own safety.

"The number of the supervision mission is 250," Ban said.

"That is what I am going to propose to the Security Council ... there is always the question whether 250 is enough. I think it is not enough considering the current situation and the vastness of the country."

"That is why we need very efficient mobility of our mission. That is what I have discussed with EU (leaders) yesterday ... whether the EU could provide all these assets for mobility including helicopters and planes ...," Ban said.

Diplomats say Annan's main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria's supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job. Critics say Assad will simply play with U.N. politics to gain time.