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UN's Ban: Syria Violating Pledge to Pull Weapons From Civilian Areas

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (file photo)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (file photo)

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has accused Syria of violating a pledge to withdraw heavy weapons from population centers and demanded that the government comply with that commitment "without delay."

In a statement released Thursday, Mr. Ban says U.N. observers in Syria have reported a continued presence of heavy weapons, military equipment and troops in civilian areas "in contravention" of an April 12 truce backed by government and rebel forces. The U.N. chief says he is "deeply troubled" by the observers' findings.

Mr. Ban also condemned violence by all sides in Syria's year-long conflict and urged the parties, particularly the Syrian government, to ensure that the 15 unarmed U.N. truce monitors can operate effectively.

A spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan said Thursday U.N. monitors inspected the site of an explosion that flattened a block of houses in the central city of Hama on the previous day, killing at least 16 people. Ahmad Fawzi said he had no immediate word on what the observers saw.

The Syrian government blamed the Hama incident on "terrorists" whom it said were preparing explosives that detonated prematurely. But, opposition activists blamed government forces, saying artillery shells destroyed the homes. Activists also reported at least seven people killed in violence related to the Syrian conflict on Thursday.

Syria has said it will honor the truce and other elements of Mr. Annan's peace plan for the country, but will respond to attacks by foreign-backed "terrorists" whom it says are behind the 13-month opposition uprising. Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said Thursday that terrorists have breached the cease-fire more than 1,300 times since April 12.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said it blames most of Syria's violence on armed opposition groups, accusing them of resorting to regional terrorism. Moscow is a longtime ally of autocratic Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria's main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to focus on protecting Syrian civilians from government attacks.

The SNC suffered a setback in its efforts to unite Syria's opposition factions when the son of a former Syrian prime minister announced the formation of a rival government-in-exile on Thursday.

Nofal al-Dawalibi made the declaration in Paris, saying his group will be more representative than the SNC, which he described as being dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. He also showed a video of several Syrian rebel commanders pledging allegiance to him. Dawalibi said his group wants the international community to carry out air strikes and set up no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors to protect civilians.

Dawalibi is the son of Maarouf al-Dawalibi, who served as Syria's prime minister before Bashar al-Assad's family took power in the 1960s. It is not clear how much influence the new opposition group has inside Syria. Several SNC members criticized Dawalibi's announcement as unhelpful to the opposition cause.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials said they are working to expand the observer mission in Syria to about 300 personnel in the coming weeks. But, Carnegie Middle East Center Director Paul Salem says that Syria's continued violence will make it clear to observers that the cease-fire is not being implemented.

"I think it will be clear to the monitors very soon that this cease-fire is certainly not holding in a significant and final way," said Salem.

Salem also said the planned contingent of 300 monitors may not be enough to calm the situation.

"Syria is a very large country," he said. "The violence has moved from one location to another. It will be a challenge for the monitors to try to be in all places all the time. It's also the case, I think, that the government will claim that when violence does erupt, they will claim that it started from the rebels and they are just responding."

The United Nations estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's crackdown on the uprising, while activist groups put the death toll at more than 11,000.

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