BEIRUT (AP) — Five U.N. truce monitors ventured Saturday into the heart of the Syrian uprising, one of the hardest-hit opposition strongholds, and were thronged by residents clamoring for foreign military help to oust President Bashar Assad.
Activists said Homs, which has been battered by tank and mortar shells fired by regime forces for weeks, was relatively calm during the visit, except for the sound of sporadic gunfire, and that troops pulled armored vehicles off the streets.
The observers, who wore bright blue helmets and body armor as they toured the central city on Saturday, were part of a small advance team that has been on the ground for the past week.
Later Saturday, the U.N. Security Council voted to expand the observer mission to 300 and renewed a call for an immediate halt to violence. The resolution gives Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon authority to decide when to deploy the additional observers, based on developments on the grounds including "the consolidation of the cease-fire." Ban has accused Assad of failing to honor the truce.
The truce, which officially took effect on April 12, and the observer mission are part of special envoy Kofi Annan's plan for ending 13 months of violence and launching talks between Assad and those trying to oust him. Syria's opposition and its Western supporters suspect Assad is largely paying lip service since full compliance, including pulling troops off the streets and allowing peaceful protests, could quickly sweep him from power.
So far, the regime has ignored such provisions and instead continued attacking opposition strongholds, though on a smaller scale than before the truce deadline. State-run Syria media also have reported rebel shooting ambushes and roadside bombs targeting troops.
Despite the violations, the international community sees Annan's plan as the only option. Russia and China have shielded their ally Syria against Security Council condemnation, Western powers oppose military intervention and Gulf country have failed to keep promises of funding rebels.
An enlarged observer team is to help make a cease-fire stick, even though a similar mission by 165 Arab League observers in January failed to halt the fighting.
The challenges facing any monitors became apparent this week when the advance team visited several hotspots in Syria. Large crowds of regime opponents have quickly surrounded the visitors, and government troops opened fire to disperse the crowds, in one instance while the observers were still present.
But the situation was relatively calm as the five observers toured rebel-held areas in Homs on Saturday. Activists said fighting and government shelling stopped and troops hid tanks in advance of the visit by U.N. cease-fire observers, their first to the city.
"We did not hear any shelling today," said a Homs activist, who only identified himself as Abul-Joud for fear of repercussions.
At one point, gunfire went off in the distance while the observers were in the city's Bayada neighborhood, accompanied by residents, and the group ran into a house to take cover, according to Abul-Joud, who said he was walking with the observers. He said it did not appear the shots were aimed in the direction of the monitors.
In the Jouret el-Shayah neighborhood of Homs, the observers were quickly thronged by residents who chanted, "The people want military intervention," according to video broadcast on the Al-Jazeera satellite TV station.
In amateur video from the same neighborhood, posted online Saturday, observers are seen walking silently through rubble-strewn deserted streets lined by heavily damaged apartment buildings.
A man in military uniform, apparently a rebel, pointed to the destruction, telling the team that "it's all destroyed buildings." Dozens of residents chanted, "The people want to execute the president," and "Freedom forever, against your will, Assad."
The advance team is to increase to 30 monitors next week, before the larger contingent arrives.
Under a preliminary agreement between the U.N. and the Syrian government, the enlarged mission will have freedom of movement and access on foot and by car. However, Syria has so far not agreed to a U.N. demand that observers can use their own planes and helicopters, seen as a key to the mission's success because it would make the team more mobile and could reduce friction on the ground.
The expanded team would also be able to install observation posts, monitor military convoys and have access to detention centers.
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