Violence may drive UN out of Syria

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The head of the UN observers in Syria says the growing violence is derailing their mission and could prompt its unarmed force to pull out.

The observer mission is the only functioning part of an international peace plan brokered by former UN chief and international envoy Kofi Annan two months ago.

There is little support for military intervention, while several rounds of sanctions have done little to stop the bloodshed and Western powers have pinned their hopes on the plan.

“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.”

Maj Gen Mood also said there was a concern among the states providing observers that the risk is approaching an unacceptable level for continuing the mission.

His comments were a clear sign Mr Annan’s peace plan is disintegrating. The regime and the opposition have ignored a ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect on 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.

While 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 Syrian regime yesterday kept up a ferocious offensive on rebel areas across the country 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.

The violence did not stop thousands of Syrians in Aleppo city, and other areas throughout the country from demonstrating against President Bashar Assad.

They marched from mosques and gathered in town squares, chanted, sang and danced against the regime.

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.

More than 20 people were reported killed when security forces opened fire on protests across the country.

Maj Gen 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 14,000 people have died since the uprising against the corrupt Assad family regime began in March 2011.

The renewed warnings of an escalation in the violence came as New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Syrian government forces of using sexual violence to torture men, women and boys. The watchdog said soldiers and pro-government armed militias sexually abused women and girls as young as 12.

“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, of Human Rights Watch.

HRW said it had information indicating that no action has been taken to investigate or punish government forces who carried out sexual torture, showing the tactic was officially condoned.