By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — U.N. observers in Syria suspended their activities and patrols Saturday because of escalating violence in the country, the head of the mission said, the strongest sign yet that an international peace plan for Syria is disintegrating.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood said rising bloodshed over the past 10 days was posing significant risks to the lives of the 300 unarmed observers in the country, and was impeding their ability to carry out their mandate.
The observers were sent to the country after international envoy Kofi Annan brokered a peace plan that included a cease-fire that was supposed to take effect on April 12. But both sides have continued to stage daily attacks and the observers themselves have been caught up in the violence on several occasions.
The U.N. observers have been the only working part of Annan's the plan, which the international community sees as its only hope to stop the bloodshed. They were initially sent to monitor compliance with the cease-fire but ultimately became the most independent witnesses the carnage between government and rebel forces that have largely ignored the truce.
The Syrian government, intent on wresting back control of rebel-held areas, launched a fierce offensive in recent days to recover territories in several locations, shelling heavily populated districts and using attack helicopters over towns and cities.
U.N. officials have said that the opposition, in turn, is increasingly coordinating attacks against government forces and civilian infrastructure.
On Saturday, government troops kept up their relentless shelling of rebel-held districts in the central city of Homs, killing at least five. Another 12, including a man, his wife and child, were killed in overnight shelling of suburbs of the capital Damascus.
"U.N. observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice," Mood said in a statement Saturday. He said the observers will not leave the country, and the suspension will be reviewed on a daily basis.
"Operations will resume when we see the situation fit for us to carry out our mandated activities," he said.
The suspension signals the unraveling of Annan's plan as the conflict that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests challenging the regime spirals closer toward civil war. Activists say some 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Western powers have stuck by the plan, in part because there are no other options on the table. There is little appetite for the military intervention that helped oust Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions have failed to stop the bloodshed.
The U.S. was now consulting with allies about "next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, adding that "the sooner this transition takes place, the greater the chance of averting a lengthy and bloody sectarian civil war."
Vietor was referring to the two U.N. resolutions that detailed Anan's peace plan and called for political dialogue between the government and the country's fractured opposition. He did not give further details in his statement.
Mood did not elaborate or say whether the monitors might eventually leave, but on Friday, he said states that provide the observers were concerned that the risk is approaching an unacceptable level — suggesting the violence could prompt the observers to pull out of the country at some point.
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides," Mood said. "It is also posing significant risks to our observers."
The Syrian government said it conveyed to Mood its "understanding" of the decision taken and blamed the rebels, whom it refers to as "terrorists" for the escalation.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had "clarified to the leadership of the U.N. mission that armed terrorist groups have conducted, since the signing of the Annan plan, an increase in criminal operations that have targeted, many times, the observers, and threatened their lives."