A veteran Norwegian peacekeeper is heading to Damascus to take charge of a UN mission overseeing a shaky ceasefire.
Major-General Robert Mood was already en route on Saturday morning to the Syrian capital when Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, publicly announced his appointment, diplomats said.
He takes over a mission that faces major obstacles and doubts before the full 300-member force approved by the UN Security Council has even gathered.
Mood himself has highlighted the "abyss of suspicion" between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition. The uprising against Assad's rule has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year, according to UN figures.
A suicide bomber killed nine people and injured dozens of others in Damascus on Friday, according to state media.
The SANA news agency said the victims of the blast in al-Midan district included civilians and law-enforcement personnel.
Opposition activists said the explosion struck opposite the Zain al-Abideen mosque, which was under heavy security for Friday prayers, and where regular protests against Assad erupt.
Syrian TV aired footage of white smoke billowing from under a bridge as people streamed out of a mosque. The streets were stained with blood. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Deaths across Syria
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, reported the deaths of 18 people, including three children, on Friday amid anti-government protests across the country.
The group said five of those killed were in Homs, three in Idlib, two in Aleppo, two in Deir Ezzor, two in Damascus, two in the Damascus Suburbs, one in Deraa and one in Hama.
"The figure does not include the victims of the terrorist bombing carried out by the regime in Damascus' Midan," it said in a statement.
As violence continued across the country despite the peace deal, the EU said that it was "extremely concerned" about the persistent bloodshed.
It called on Syria to end its "violations" of the ceasefire, which was negotiated by Kofi Annan, the former UN chief.
"I am extremely concerned about the continued violence in Syria in violation of the ceasefire which should have come into effect on 12 April and despite the presence on the ground of UN observers," Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, said on Friday.
Ashton said it was "clear that the Syrian government is not fulfilling its obligations and is failing to meet its commitments to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from population centres".
She said the Syrian government "must ensure that the ceasefire holds".
As Mood headed to Damascus to take charge of the UN mission, Espen Barth Eide, Norway's defence minister, highlighted the "risky" task facing the unarmed observers.
"The situation in Syria remains fragile," Eide said. "We therefore have to have realistic expectations in terms of what the observer force can achieve.
"Still, our hope is that the presence of the observers may help reduce the level of violence in the country."
Mood knows Damascus well and was there to negotiate conditions for an advance team of UN observers.
He was head of the UN Truce Supervision Organisation, which monitors Middle East ceasefires, from 2009 until 2011.
He was also twice part of the international force in Kosovo between 1999 and 2002.
He has not spoken publicly since he was nominated by Ban, but highlighted the "abyss of suspicion and violence between the Syrian regime and the opposition" in a recent interview with Norwegian media.
No easy choice
Mood said that when he was asked to lead the advanced team, "it was an easy choice to say yes."
"It's worth making the effort," Mood said about the mission and the peace plan that Annan clinched with the Assad government.
"The Syrian people deserve to have an opportunity."
Mood faces immediate challenges amid Western doubts about whether the Syrian government will let the monitors work freely.
The presence of two UN monitors did not prevent shelling in the central city of Hama this week.The US, UK and France have all said UN sanctions will have to be considered if the violence does not halt.
The UN is also struggling to meet Security Council demands to speed up the deployment. The peacekeeping department initially said that it would take a month to get the first 100 military officers in place.
Syria has blocked one proposed monitor already based in Damascus.
Diplomats said Syria has also threatened to refuse entry to any observers from the Friends of Democratic Syria, a Western-Arab coalition of countries that has backed Assad opponents.
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|William A. Cook|