BEIRUT – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday the Syrian government is responsible for guaranteeing U.N. observers full freedom of movement to monitor the country's tenuous cease-fire, which appeared to be unraveling as regime forces pounded the opposition stronghold of Homs, activists said.
Even though overall violence in Syria has dropped significantly since the truce took effect Thursday, the government's shelling of the central city of Homs over the past four days has raised doubts about President Bashar Assad's commitment to special envoy Kofi Annan's plan to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on the country's political future.
An advance team of six observers arrived in Damascus late Sunday to negotiate the mission's ground rules with Syrian authorities.
Ban, speaking to reporters in Brussels, called on Assad to ensure the observers' work is not hindered.
"It is the Syrian government's responsibility to guarantee freedom of access, freedom of movement within the country," he said. "They should be allowed to freely move to any places where they will be able to observe this cessation of violence."
He called the cease-fire "very fragile," but said it was essential that it hold so that an "inclusive political dialogue can continue." He said opposition forces "should also fully cooperate."
The U.N. plans to increase the advance team to 30 people, all of them unarmed, Ban said, adding that the Security Council is expected to authorize a formal monitoring team of about 250 people later this week.
The advance team, led by Moroccan Col. Ahmed Himiche, met Monday with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials to discuss ground rules, including what freedom of movement the observers would have, according to Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.
Although the Security Council has demanded full access for the U.N. team, Assad's regime could try to create obstacles. The failure of an Arab League observer mission earlier this year was blamed in part on regime restrictions imposed on the monitors, including having to travel with government minders.
Fawzi said in a statement issued in Geneva that the mission "will start with setting up operating headquarters, and reaching out to the Syrian government and the opposition forces so that both sides fully understand the role of the U.N. observers."
"We will start our mission as soon as possible and we hope it will be a success," Himiche told The Associated Press as he left a Damascus hotel along with his team.
The international community hopes U.N. observers will be able to stabilize the cease-fire, which formally took effect Thursday. Annan will travel to Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday to take part in an Arab League meeting to discuss Syria.
But violence has continued in pockets throughout the country, fueling doubts about Assad's intentions among Western countries and the Syrian opposition.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and current president of the Security Council, said the U.S. was worried about the violence.
She said it contradicts the Syrian government's commitments and said its continuation "would call into question the wisdom and the viability of sending in the whole monitoring presence."
Activists reported government attacks in a number of places across the country on Monday.
Tarek Badrakhan, an activist from the battered and almost deserted Homs district of Khaldiyeh, said the regime resumed its intense bombardment of the neighborhood.
"The shelling hasn't stopped for one minute since this morning. There are buildings on fire right now," he said via Skype.
Badrakhan and other activists said the army appeared to be pushing to take control of the last rebel-held districts in Homs and was pounding Khaldiyeh from three sides. He said half of the nearby district of Bayada fell under the army's control Sunday night. Troops were trying to storm Qarabees and Jouret al-Shayah but the Free Syrian Army is repelling them, he said, referring to the army defectors fighting the government.
In activist videos posted online, shells could be heard whizzing through the air before smashing into residential areas in at least two Homs neighborhoods, sending up huge clouds of smoke.
"We hope that the observers would come to Homs as soon as possible because if things go on like this, there won't be anything left called Homs," Badrakhan said.
Two activist groups, the Local Coordination Committees and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the intense shelling of Homs. They also said at least six people were killed in gunfire in the central city of Hama and four in the northern city of Idlib. They also reported at least four people killed in shelling in Homs and in the nearby town of Qusair.
The Syrian leader accepted the truce deal at the prodding of his main ally, Russia, but his compliance has been limited. Activists say his troops are still shelling rebel-held areas on the provinces of Homs and Idlib in the north and have not pulled out of urban centers. Assad apparently fears losing control of a country his family has ruled for four decades. Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks, including shooting ambushes.
The U.N. Security Council approved the observer mission unanimously on Saturday.
It's the first peace initiative to enjoy broad backing, including from Russia and China, who shielded the Syrian regime from Security Council censure in the past. Syrian officials said Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was headed to China for a two-day visit. Last week, Moallem met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow.
Also Monday, a Hamas official said a senior member of the Palestinian group, Mustafa Lidawi, was abducted over the weekend near Damascus. In the past, Lidawi had served as the Hamas representative in Iran and Lebanon.
Lidawi opposed a recent power-sharing agreement between the Islamic militant Hamas and its Western-backed rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and was seen as a supporter of Assad's regime. Until recently, Hamas' top leaders were based in Damascus, but became increasingly critical of Assad's crackdown on the uprising and decided to leave the country.
Hamas asked the Syrian authorities to try to find Lidawi, said a senior official of the group in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the contacts. Lidawi's family told Hamas officials he was abducted Saturday.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, John Heilprin in Geneva, Don Melvin in Brussels and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.