BEIRUT (Reuters) – Three Syrian military officers were killed in Damascus on Tuesday, state media and opposition groups said, and at least three people were wounded in a car bomb blast in the capital, the latest blows to a ragged UN-monitored ceasefire.
The fledgling United Nations observer mission visited the central province of Homs, hotbed of a 13-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, as part of efforts to silence the guns 12 days after the accord was struck.
The state news agency SANA said an “armed terrorist group” shot dead two army officers near Damascus, while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a third was killed in the capital’s Barzeh neighborhood.
Syria’s pro-Assad Ikhbaria television blamed a similar group for the car bomb that detonated in a popular Damascus shopping district, damaging buildings close to its renowned Old City.
Iran’s Fars news agency placed the blast outside the Iranian cultural centre, although the mission run by Assad’s major regional ally was not damaged.
In Syria’s closely controlled state media, “armed terrorists” refers to rebels who have been fighting to overthrow Assad, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers in North Africa and the Middle East.
The United Nations says security forces have killed at least 9,000 people in the conflict, while Damascus says 2,600 of its personnel have died at the hands of insurgents who have seized control of pockets of towns and cities across the country of 23 million and who continue to launch daily guerrilla attacks.
SANA said on Tuesday customs officials on the Syria-Lebanon border had seized a car stuffed with ammunition and weapons, including three machineguns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
A small group of unarmed U.N. observers has been in Syria for just over a week to track the stuttering progress of the April 12 truce engineered by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Under its terms, both sides are supposed to adhere to a ceasefire while the army withdraws tanks and heavy weapons from population centers – requirements that the United Nations made clear on Monday were not being heeded.
“The cessation of armed violence remains incomplete,” Lynn Pascoe, U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, told the Security Council during a debate on the Middle East.
The observer mission is meant to grow to 300 unarmed personnel, although the minimal presence already on the ground has led to a decline in the daily death toll, activists say.
However, they accuse Assad’s army of simply parking tanks out of sight on farms on the outskirts of towns and cities and resuming operations the moment the monitors’ backs are turned.
Activists said 31 people were killed on Monday in shelling and shooting in the central city of Hama, a hub of the revolt, the day after a brief visit by a U.N. team.
“It began in the morning with tanks and artillery. There were houses burning,” a local opposition activist who identified himself as Mousab told Reuters in neighboring Lebanon.
Video that activists said was shot in Hama showed 10 bodies wrapped in shrouds being loaded into a mass grave.
Another 24 people were killed in violence elsewhere on Monday, according to anti-Assad groups.
VAIN HOPE FOR U.N. MISSION?
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will brief the Security Council every 15 days about developments in Syria and submit proposals as needed for adjusting the mandate of the observer mission, to be called UNSMIS.
The Homs region has been torn by violence over the past year and there is deep skepticism among opposition activists and Arab and Western leaders alike that the monitoring mission – even when it reaches full size – will bring an end to the conflict.
“I do not expect it to succeed, because the number of observers is very small. Three hundred people cannot do anything,” Tunisian President Moncef al-Marzouki said in an interview published in the al-Hayat regional newspaper.
“In Kosovo there were thousands of observers,” he said, referring to the former Serbian province that is a tiny fraction of Syria’s size.
But Assad’s critics have few other viable tools to stop the bloodshed. They are leery of military intervention, given fears of drawing powerful Assad allies like Iran and Hezbollah militants into the fray, and face Russian and Chinese opposition to U.N. sanctions on Damascus called for by Western leaders.
Marzouki, who came to power in the aftermath of Tunisia’s largely peaceful pro-democracy uprising in 2011, called on Assad to step down to avoid further loss of life – including his own.
Assad “will go one way or another … dead or alive,” he told regional newspaper al-Hayat.
The grinding conflict has crippled Syria’s oil- and tourism-driven economy and U.N. officials say it has forced tens of thousands to flee to neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
A joint U.N.-Syrian assessment mission last month estimated that at least one million people inside the country needed humanitarian aid.
As with foreign journalists, U.N. aid agencies have been largely barred from Syria, although the U.N. World Food Programme said it aimed to deliver aid to 500,000 people “in the coming weeks”, roughly double the number it expects to reach this month.