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Envoy: UN Monitors Helping to Calm Syrian Violence

  • Margaret Besheer

Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan (L) speaks with Major-General Robert Mood of Norway during a meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, April 4, 2012.

Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan (L) speaks with Major-General Robert Mood of Norway during a meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, April 4, 2012.

U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy for Syria Kofi Annan said Tuesday that the small number of monitors in Syria have had a calming effect that should grow as the mission fully deploys.

He told the U.N. Security Council that there has been a limited reduction in the use of heavy weapons and violence is down in some areas, though the killing has not stopped on either side.

Annan briefed the 15-nation council in a closed meeting via a video link from Geneva. Afterwards he painted a mixed picture for reporters.

“There has been some decrease in the military activities, but there are still serious violations in the cessation of violence that was agreed and the level of violence and abuses are unacceptable," he said.

"Government troops and armor are still present, though in smaller formations," he said. "There have been worrying episodes of violence by the government, but we have also seen attacks against government forces, troops and installations. And there have been a spate of bombings which are really worrying.”

But Annan said the force of about 60 unarmed military observers now in Syria is having a positive effect.

“The presence of observers, and in situations where they have intervened specifically, have not only had a calming effect, but sometimes they have been able to get the forces involved to do the right thing,” he said.

The United Nations hopes to have the full mission of 300 monitors and a hundred civilian support staff deployed to Syria by the end of this month.

Rights abuses continue

Annan acknowledged that although unacceptable human rights abuses continue and all six points of his peace plan have not been implemented, there is no other option right now.

“I also told members of the council that I believe that the U.N. supervision mission is possibly the only remaining chance to stabilize the country," he said. "And I am sure I am not telling you any secret, when I tell you that there is a profound concern that the country could otherwise descend into full civil war and the implications of that are quite frightening. We cannot allow that to happen.”

After Annan’s briefing, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States wants to see his mission succeed, but added that the onus is on the Syrian government to create the conditions for that to happen. She said Washington is focused on increasing pressure on Damascus and on President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was more upbeat, saying the situation is moving in a positive direction and that obstacles can be overcome.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said his government’s commitment to the six-point plan is largely responsible for the improvement in the situation.

He cautioned that Damascus is facing difficulties from some Arab, regional and international powers, however, who he said are trying to undermine the U.N. mission through the financing and arming of rebels and armed groups.

Syrian rights activists say government troops killed at least six people in fighting around the country on Tuesday. Casualties could not be independently confirmed. Syrian rebels also have staged regular attacks on Assad's forces since the truce took effect.

In late March the United Nations estimated that 9,000 people had been killed during Syria's conflict. It has not raised its assessment of the death toll since then. But the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says nearly 12,000 people have been killed during the past 14 months.

Red Cross to visit prison

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that Syrian authorities will allow its aid workers to visit Aleppo Central Prison in the coming days.

The ICRC president announced resumption of the prison visits, which have been stalled since September, while appealing for more cash to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria.

Jakob Kellenberger said ICRC delegates will visit Central Aleppo prison between May 14 and 23. He said he received Syria's agreement during his last trip to Damascus in April.

This will be the second prison visit by ICRC delegates in Syria. The first was at Damascus Central Prison last September.

But further visits were then blocked by disagreements between the Red Cross and Syrian government regarding the terms of the visits. Kellenberger said the issue now has been resolved. He said the visit to Aleppo's prison is an important step, which could lead to visits to other prisons.

"When you visit the detention center, you want to see all parts of that detention center," he said. "If you visit a detention center, you want to have talks without witnesses, with any person you would like to have talks without witnesses. And any person who would like to have talks with you without witnesses should also be allowed to have talks without witnesses."

Kellenberger said the ICRC is worried about the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria, where thousands of people have been killed and tens of thousands are displaced, 14 months after the conflict began.

The ICRC is appealing for an additional $27 million to boost its humanitarian assistance for hundreds of thousands of people until the end of the year. Kellenberger said last year, the ICRC was planning to provide food assistance to 2,000 people per month. But now, he said the agency is feeding about 100,000 people each month.

"The number of people who have very basic needs in terms of food and non-food has increased very much," he said.

Lisa Schlein, in Geneva, contributed to this report.