UN mission to Syria comes under attack in Idlib

An IED went off yesterday in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, damaging a UN observer convoy and killing at least 20 locals, but no UN observers. The government and opposition blame each other.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters
Members of the United Nations observer mission in Syria are seen between destroyed houses in Sermeen, near the northern city of Idlib, May 15.

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Members of the United Nations observer mission to Syria, who are in the country to monitor a cease-fire that has fallen apart, came under attack yesterday in Idlib province.

Several observers were traveling through the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a vehicle convoy yesterday when an improvised explosive device (IED) went off. At least 20 people were killed in the explosion and the UN vehicles were damaged, but none of the observers were killed, the BBC reports. The government and the opposition are blaming the attack, which happened while the convoy was surrounded by anti-government protesters, on each other.

The monitors were unable to be removed from the city immediately, so they spent the night under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, an armed faction of the opposition.

"They are now with the Free Army, which is protecting them. If they leave, the regime will terminate them because they have witnessed one of its crimes and it does not want them to tell the truth," rebel Maj. Sami al-Kurdi told Reuters.

The New York Times reports that eyewitnesses reached via Skype said a large crowd was gathered for a funeral for a man killed by government forces two days earlier when the UN convoy passed through, headed toward a part of the town where government forces are concentrated to survey checkpoints there. 

Emboldened by the presence of the monitors, some residents started demonstrating nearer to the checkpoints and the government area than they normally would. When they were at close range, the soldiers opened fire, the eyewitnesses said, and somewhere in the fracas the distinctive white United Nations vehicles were heavily damaged. An amateur video posted online showed the lead vehicle lurching and then listing, its front hood blown open, after a loud bang sent up a cloud of dust.

Reuters reports that the UN mission will retrieve the observers in Khan Sheikhoun later today.

According to a separate BBC report, UN monitors also got caught in a battle in the town of Rastan on May 13 and one of their convoys was hit with an explosion in Deraa last week. Violence has "steadily" grown again since a cease-fire went into effect in April and "may reach the level when the UN monitors can no longer operate."  

There are 189 observers in Syria, out of the 300 total planned, according to BBC. 

Calming effect?

Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria, said previously that the monitors' presence has had a calming effect, but the continuation of violence has sullied many Syrians' opinion of their mission. Many argue that the monitors spend too little time in many areas, the Los Angeles Times reports.

One of the common complaints is that the government only halts violence when the observers pass through and resumes its crackdown once the observers have moved on.

“When the UN comes to our city, they stay in their cars,” a local Free Syrian Army leader in Idlib, Abu Ardil, told GlobalPost. “The people go to meet them but they stay in their cars and then go away. It is impossible to speak with them. And as soon as they leave the city, the shooting starts again.”

Mr. Ardil said that in Idlib the only difference is that the fighting now continues after dark, when it used to end. 

Shift in tactics only

A local activist from the city of Ariha said government forces have merely changed their tactics so that they appear to be easing up on violence.

“They have withdrawn the heavy weapons from the inner cities, but increased the number of armed soldiers. They have reduced the killing but increased the risk. It’s the same equation. They are still taking activists off the streets. They are making fun of us in front of the world. They think we are fools.”

“All of us thought from the beginning of the UN mission, from the first day, that it would fail,” Mustafa Al Haja, a university student living in Idlib, told GlobalPost. “Now this is the end. It is enough. The main aim of the UN plan is to stop the killing. But the killing is continuous. The Free Syrian Army is our last hope. The change can only come from our hands.”

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