Violence abates as UN observers visit Syrian battlefield of Homs

While many analysts discount the chances of the UN peace plan working, visits by UN observers are showing some sign of temporarily reducing the violence.

UN observers struggling to shore up a shaky cease-fire in Syria visited an embattled neighborhood in the central city of Homs Sunday, the Syrian state news agency said. Activists said government snipers shot dead two people nearby.

SANA said the observers toured the Khaldiyeh district, which has seen heavy government shelling and clashes between Syrian forces and rebels.

The observers in Homs are part of an advance team of 15 UN monitors in Syria trying to salvage a peace plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan that aims to end the country's 13-month-old crisis. Under the plan, a cease-fire is supposed to lead to talks between President Bashar Assad and the opposition on a political solution to the conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people.

But the cease-fire has been deeply troubled since it went into effect April 12. The regime has kept up its attacks on opposition strongholds, while rebel fighters continue to ambush security forces. Defying a major truce provision, the Syrian military has failed to withdraw tanks and soldiers from the streets.

Most analysts say the plan has little chance of succeeding, though it could temporarily bring down the level of daily violence.

That has largely been the case in Homs, Syria's third largest city, which has emerged as the heart of the uprising. Regime forces pounded parts of Homs for months before two UN monitors moved into an upscale hotel there last week.

Since then, the level of violence has dropped, although gunbattles still frequently break out. An amateur video posted online Saturday showed the observers walking through a heavily damaged neighborhood, where residents collected a body laying in the street and put it in the back of a pickup truck.

No details were immediately available about the UN observers' visit Sunday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government snipers shot dead two people in the Homs neighborhood of Joret al-Shayah, which borders Khaldiyeh.

The group, which relies on a network of activist in Syria, also said one civilian was killed and four wounded in random gunfire by security forces in the village of al-Saliha in the central Hama province.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has blamed the regime for widespread violations of the truce – prompting Syria to fire back that his comments were "outrageous" and accuse him of bias.

The spat has further stoked concerns among the Syrian opposition and its Western supporters that Assad is merely playing for time to avoid compliance with a plan that – if fully implemented – would likely sweep him out of office.

Under the peace plan, the UN is to deploy as many as 300 truce monitors. One hundred should be in the country by mid-May, and the head of the observer team, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, is to arrive in Damascus on Sunday to assume command, according to the mission's spokesman, Neeraj Singh.

Ban and Annan have cited violations by both sides, but generally portrayed the regime as the main aggressor.

An editorial Saturday in the state-run Tishrin newspaper said Ban has avoided discussing rebel violence in favor of "outrageous" statements against the Syrian government. The editorial said the international community has applied a double standard, ignoring "crimes and terrorist acts" against Syria and thus encouraging more violence, according to excerpts carried by the state-run news agency SANA.

Mass protests against Assad erupted in March 2011, but gradually turned into an insurgency in response to a violent regime crackdown. Assad's regime denies that it faces a popular uprising, claiming it is being targeted by a foreign-led terrorist conspiracy.

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