BEIRUT (AP) — A group of UN ceasefire observers toured a rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs Saturday as residents chanted loudly for a military intervention to protect them from President Bashar Assad’s regime forces.
Fighting and government shelling stopped in Homs and troops hid tanks in advance of the visit by UN ceasefire observers, their first to the city. The visit came three days after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the team’s initial request to visit Homs “was not granted, with officials claiming security concerns.”
A video aired on Al-Jazeera television showed three observers, wearing blue flak jackets and helmets, walking in the middle of dozens of people in a street in the Jouret el-Shayah neighborhood. Bystanders chanted “the people want military intervention,” and “may your soul be cursed Abu Hafez,” referring to the president.
An advance team of seven UN monitors has been in the country for about a week to assess compliance with an internationally brokered ceasefire that went into effect on April 12.
The team has visited several restive areas including the southern province of Daraa and some of the suburbs of the capital Damascus. But their visit to Homs is particularly important as the city and surrounding areas are among the country’s hardest hit by the violence that has left more than 9,000 people dead over the past 13 months, according to the UN.
Western powers have pinned their hopes on the plan by international envoy Kofi Annan, who brokered the ceasefire, in part because they are running out of options. The UN has ruled out any military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions and other attempts to isolate Assad have done little to stop the bloodshed.
A municipal official in Homs said the team met with the governor, then went out on a tour. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group said the team visited the neighborhoods of Jouret el-Shayah and Qarabees and later headed to the rebel-held area of Khaldiyeh.
The United Nations hopes to have 30 observers in the country next week to monitor the tenuous ceasefire between regime troops and the opposition, and the Security Council reached a tentative agreement Friday night on plans for the deployment of up to a total of 300. France’s UN Ambassador Gerard Araud said the text, negotiated over many hours, would be sent to capitals overnight for consideration and the council would meet Saturday for a vote.
The UN advance team did not did not venture out Friday, the day when anti-government protests are usually held after the noon prayers, in a blow to the protesters’ hopes. The team’s head, Col. Ahmed Himiche, said they did not go out “because we don’t want to be used as a tool for escalating the situation.”
Activists say Syrian troops fired tear gas and bullets that day at thousands of protesters who spilled out of mosques, while the state media reported that bombs and shootings killed 17 soldiers.
In contrast, much of Syria was quiet Saturday, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Homs was peaceful for the first time in more than a week.
“Until now I have not received any report of violence, including the city of Homs that was witnessing daily shelling,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory. “It is quiet until this moment, unlike the past days.”
Salim Qabani, an activist based in the Homs province, said troops hid armored vehicles. He said tanks were pulled off the streets and into a police base.
Qabani added that regime forces hid nine tanks in trenches in nearby Qusair. Rebels hold parts of the town, which is near the border with Lebanon and has witnessed daily shelling over the past week.
The Observatory said troops were detaining people in the southern town of Sahm al-Golan where a large roadside bomb killed 10 soldiers Friday.
The state news agency meanwhile reported that “armed terrorists” blew up an oil pipeline that carries crude oil from one of the fields of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour. SANA did not give further details but there have been similar attacks on pipelines in the past months.