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Syria's Homs 'calm' amid UN monitors visit

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UN team did not venture out on Friday, the day when anti-government protests are usually held [AFP] Syrian authorities have allowed a team of UN ceasefire monitors to enter the battered city of Homs after resident opposition activists said shelling and gunfire stopped for the first time in weeks.

A UN spokesman said on Saturday that a team of monitors toured the city and met with its governor.

"They are now visiting districts of the city," Khaled al-Masri said. Syria's state news agency SANA confirmed the statement.

Activists in Homs said that the shelling of the city only ceased to make it look as if the government was abiding by a truce, mediated by international the UN and Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan.

They said that shelling would resume as soon after the monitors left.

"It is very clear that the Syrian government can stop the violence whenever it wants at anytime in the country," Walid al-Fares of the Homs Revolution Council said.

"There is no shelling whatsoever," Fares said, a day after activists had reported the deaths of at least 12 people there amid continued shelling by government forces on several neighbourhoods.
 
"We believe that the calmness has to do with the arrival of the observers. We wish they could live with us so that this peace can remain."

An advance team of seven UN monitors has been in Syria for about a week to monitor the ceasefire, which went into effect on April 12.

The UN hopes to have 30 observers in the country by next week to monitor the tenuous truce between regime troops and the opposition.

Security Council vote

Later on Saturday, the UN Security Council is set to vote on a draft resolution to send up to 300 unarmed military observers to Syria.

The draft calls for an "immediate end to all violence and human rights violations, securing humanitarian access and facilitating a Syrian-led political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system".

Envoys to the council, which has been divided amongst itself since the Syrian violence erupted 13 months ago, reached a preliminary agreement on the draft resolution on Friday.

But there was a possibility the deal could fall through since council members must seek final approval from their capitals.

The resolution is under "silent procedure," meaning that if no one opposes, it passes unanimously when the Security Council convenes at 15GMT.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN and president of the Security Council, said "it's possible there will not be an agreed text at that point".

"We'll see, and we'll regroup accordingly," Rice said.

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador, said: "The Syrian government and the opposition must know that the Security Council will be authorising the full-fledged mandate so we hope it's going to send a strong and good political signal."

European nations had wanted the threat of sanctions to be included in the resolution if Assad did not keep the commitments.

But the final draft text talks only of backing the resolution with "further steps as appropriate". 

UN aircraft

The draft urges Syria to reach an agreement with the UN on "appropriate air transportation assets" and condemns the government for "widespread violations of human rights".

Ban Ki-moon the UN secretary general has said helicopters and other military hardware would be needed by the monitors, but Syria has dismissed any need for UN aircraft.

The team has visited several restive areas including the southern province of Daraa and some of the suburbs of the capital Damascus.

But their visit to Homs is particularly important as the city, Syria's third largest, along with its hinterland are among the regions hardest hit by the violence that the UN says has left more than 9,000 people dead over the past 13 months.

While the situation in Homs has been reportedly calm, activists on Saturday said Damascus suburbs were being shelled by government forces and that several injuries were reported.

On Saturday, the opposition Syrian National Council renewed its call for the UN to intervene militarily in the country.

"We call anew on the UN Security Council to act with all urgency to intervene militarily to bring an end to the crimes committed by the bloody regime against the unarmed Syrian people," said a statement received in Beirut.

Reports of violence

Syrian activists said that columns of smoke rose from the Mezze military airport in Damascus after hearing a huge explosion in the area. The blast was followed by heavy gunfire inside the airport.

Activists reported that security forces closed Sumaria road near the airport and blocked access to and from the capital, as police vehicles were seen rushing towards the fighting.

Mezze military airport hosts air force and defence divisions and an intelligence brigade.

In the southen province of Deraa, the Local Co-ordination Committees. an opposition activist network, said loud explosions were heard in  al-Karak al-Sharqi area while the town of Mseifra was being raided.

Meanwhile, the state news agency on Saturday said that an "armed terrorist" group blew up an oil pipeline in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, near the border with Iraq.

"An armed terrorist group detonated an improvised explosive device on a oil line near Abu Hammam, in the province of Deir al-Zor, which led to a fire," SANA said, giving no more details.

At least 34 people were reported killed by activists across the country on Friday amid mass anti-government protests after noon prayers.

The UN advance team did not did not venture out on Friday, the day when anti-government protests are usually held after noon prayers, in a blow to protesters' hopes.

Colonel Ahmed Himiche, the team's head, said they did not go out "because we don't want to be used as a tool for escalating the situation".


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