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Cheering protesters greet UN observers

23 April 2012, 18:51

Beirut - Chanting crowds of anti-regime protesters in rebellious Damascus suburbs welcomed United Nations observers monitoring Syria's shaky cease-fire Monday while the European Union imposed new sanctions targeting wealthy backers of President Bashar al-Assad.

Also Monday, a Jordanian relief agency said Syrian troops ambushed hundreds of people fleeing the country over the weekend, and dozens of them crossed the border into Jordan with burns and gunshot wounds. The Kitab and Sunna charity said Syrian forces detained dozens of people, including about 50 women.

Anti-regime activists often accuse the government of targeting those fleeing the country.

The UN has sent an advance team of eight observers to Syria as part of international envoy Kofi Annan's plan to end the fighting between Assad's forces and those seeking to overthrow his regime.

More monitors are due to arrive in the coming days, and the UN has authorised a mission of 300 total observers, though it remains unclear when the full contingent will arrive.

Activists said the observer team on Monday visited the mountain town of Zabadani, about 30km northwest of the capital Damascus, and a spokesperson for the team, Neeraj Singh, said they were also touring the suburbs of Douma and Harasta.

All three areas have seen frequent anti-government protests and fierce regime crackdowns. Government troops shelled Douma on Sunday, activists said.

Amateur videos posted online Monday showed four observers wearing blue U.N. helmets and body army walking in Douma through a crowd of thousands of protesters, who chanted, sang, played drums and waved Syrian flags.

Earlier in the day, they spent about 30 minutes in the mountain town of Zabadani, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Damascus, where they talked to a few people and saw buildings damaged by government attacks.

Back in 2 minutes

Local activist Fares Mohammed said he was disappointed with the visit. Tanks that had been posted in the town centre withdrew hours before the visit to an area less than a half kilometre away, he said, and the observers declined offers by residents to show them the place.

"Those tanks can be back in the city in two minutes," he said.

Rebels seized control of Zabadani in January, successfully repelling regime assaults before losing the town again a month later. The town is believed to be a key transit point for weapons and funding to the Syrian-allied Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.

Many Syrians, as well as Western countries, have voiced scepticism about Assad's willingness to abide by the cease-fire plan for ending the bloodshed and launching talks between the regime and it opponents.

They say the Syrian leader is largely paying lip service to the truce since full compliance - including withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from populated areas and allowing peaceful demonstrations - could quickly sweep him from power.

Since the cease-fire went into affect on April 12, regime forces have continued to shell rebellious areas, while rebels have ambushed regime checkpoints and military convoys.

Violence appeared to have dropped Monday, however, even in the opposition stronghold of Homs, which has been the hardest-hit target of the regime's assaults. Two UN observers have remained in the city, and activists have reported relatively little violence there in recent days - after daily shelling for months before the observers' arrival.

"There is a big difference," said Homs-based activist Abu Mohammed Ibrahim via Skype. "Before, we were getting hit with rockets and mortars. Now there are snipers and some gunfire, but only medium weapons. Before they fired all they had at us."

Ibrahim said local rebels were observing the cease-fire, avoiding military checkpoints and streets where the government had posted snipers.

Violence elsewhere

Syria's state news service said the UN monitors met on Monday with residents in Homs' northwestern Waer neighbourhood.

Activists reported violence elsewhere, however, saying government shelling had killed people in the central city of Hama. Videos posted online showed huge plumes of smoke rising from residential buildings.

The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests calling for his ouster. The regime responded with a withering crackdown, which prompted many in the opposition to take up arms to against the government.

The Syrian state news agency said Monday that "terrorists" had killed a doctor in the country's south, two military officers in the central province of Hama and two others in the south.

The Syrian government blames the uprising on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.

In Luxembourg, the European Union banned the sale of luxury goods and products that can have military as well as civilian uses to Syria.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc approved the new set of sanctions - the 14th in the past year - "because of deep concern about the situation and continuing violence in spite of the cease-fire".

EU experts will work out later precisely which goods will be included in the new embargo. One of the diplomats said so-called "dual-use" goods can include anything from vehicles to fertilizers and other chemicals.

The only precedent in international relations for the luxury ban is one imposed by the EU in 2007 on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

That ban included foods such as caviar and truffles, high-quality wines and spirits, perfumes and pure bred horses.

The sanctions take aim at the wealthy business class that has largely stood by al-Bashar.

- AP


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