UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. peacekeeping chief said Tuesday that U.N. military observers in Syria are reporting cease-fire violations from the government and opposition and he demanded an immediate halt to all violence.
Herve Ladsous refused to say which side was responsible for the most violations. But he said the unarmed observers have documented a number of Syrian heavy weapons deployed in populated areas — including armored personnel carriers and Howitzers — despite the government's claim that it had withdrawn tanks and troops from cities and towns as required under international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.
Syrian forces fired mortar shells into a farming village near the Turkish border Tuesday, killing 10 people, among them two young children.
"The level of violence in Syria has been appalling," Ladsous said at a news conference. "I think the violations that are observed come from both sides. I would not establish a ratio. Now is not the time ... The important fact is that violations do come from both sides."
Twenty-four observers were in Syria on Tuesday in five locations — Damascus, Homs, Hama, Daraa and Idlib — all hotspots in the 13-month uprising that by U.N. account has killed more than 9,000 people, Ladsous said at a news conference. In each place, he said, they conduct mobile patrols during the day and sometimes at night.
He said the U.N. has commitments for about 150 observers which are now being processed, with new pledges coming in daily, and expects a rapid increase that will see the authorized total of 300 observers on the ground by the end of May.
But Ladsous said this requires Syria to give visas to the observers and it has already denied visas to three observers without reason. He declined to disclose their nationalities.
He said there were "verbal comments" from the Syrians about the Friends of Democratic Syria, which includes more than 70 nations including the U.S., many European countries and a number of Mideast nations. President Bashar Assad's government said it would refuse visas to observers from the "Friends" group.
Ladsous said it is the U.N. peacekeeping department's responsibility to appoint observers and if Syrian authorities don't cooperate, "we report to the Security Council," as he did last week.
He said he expects the U.N. and Syria to sign an agreement "very rapidly" on the operation of the U.N. mission.
But Ladsous said Assad's government still refuses to allow the U.N. to use its own helicopters and air assets, and discussions are continuing on that issue.
Even though only a small number of U.N. observers are on the ground, "already they have had a visible impact, an effective impact," Ladsous said. Not only do the observers see what is going on, but "their presence has the potential to change the political dynamics."
"They help build calm, and calm helps the political process that Mr. Annan is leading," he added.
Ladsous said that 35 U.N. civilian staff members are already in Syria and more will be deployed to support the observers and monitor the implementation of other aspects of the peace plan.
The civilian staff will establish contacts "with various components of the political landscape in Syria, talking to the greatest number possible of people," he said. They will also work on human rights and gender-based violence issues "which are a part of the drama that is happening in Syria."
He said the observers and civilians already deployed — some redeployed from U.N. missions in the Mideast and elsewhere — come from 24 countries.
With the Syrian government responsible for their security, Ladsous said, their safety is an issue.
"I have to say there have been several incidents of various concern, in particular with some opposition members," Ladsous said, without elaborating.