DAMASCUS - Syrian forces shelled rebel areas anew on Wednesday, six days into a UN-backed ceasefire, sparking new pressure for unfettered nationwide access for an observer mission intended to oversee it.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who was due to report to the Security Council later on Wednesday on the progress of talks between an observer advance team and Syrian officials, urged Damascus to give the mission free access across the country.
But a pro-government newspaper reported that a protocol governing the mission’s operations might still be days away.
The seven-member advance team arrived in Damascus on Sunday to prepare for the observer mission agreed with international envoy Kofi Annan as part of his blueprint for ending 13 months of bloodshed.
But its efforts to reach agreement with the authorities on unrestricted access to protest centres for the full mission have so far failed to bear fruit, diplomats at the United Nations said.
Syrian’s pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said the advance team had held talks with foreign ministry officials on Tuesday and that the protocol should be finalised in the coming days.
Members of the advance team also visited the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and met its governor, the newspaper said.
The observers were seen heading out of their hotel in Damascus on board two vehicles early Wednesday but it was unclear where they were headed.
“We do not make comments about our mission,” said team leader Colonel Ahmed Himmiche.
“There are seven of us and our numbers will increase today or tomorrow until we reach 30,” he said.
Annan wants the mission’s numbers to swell to more than 250, but the UN Security Council resolution adopted last Saturday approves only the initial 30.
Security Council diplomats have said reinforcement would depend on compliance with the ceasefire that went into force last Thursday.
Washington warned that Annan’s hopes of a larger mission were being jeopardised by the persistent violence, which saw at least 20 people killed on Tuesday, 17 of then civilians, according to monitors.
On Wednesday, regime forces launched a fresh bombardment of rebel neighbourhoods of the flashpoint central city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A civilian was killed as troops carried out search operations in Idlib, a province in the northwest close to the border with Turkey where fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army have been active, the London-based watchdog added.
“The violence is escalating. It will be very difficult for the council to send unarmed observers into a hot war,” US ambassador Susan Rice told CNN television in a new sign of Western doubts about Assad’s intentions.
She said Annan’s peace plan was “in jeopardy” because Assad’s government was not keeping to its side of the bargain.
Rice would not comment on the observers’ talks with the Syrian government, but another senior UN diplomat said that if Damascus did not complete the protocol by the end of the week then the Security Council could not allow the full mission of 200-250 observers envisaged by Annan.
Following recommendations by the former UN chief, the Security Council resolution which sent the advance party said there had to be “full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access” for monitors.
“I think there is a risk that the Syrians will not agree to all of that and we will have to decide what to do,” said the diplomat.
“There is a holdup and it looks like the Syrians are doing it deliberately,” a second diplomat told AFP.