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UN observer team’s status in Syria uncertain amid clashes

Six in Damascus now; 25 more expected soon

US Ambassador to the UN Susan E. Rice said that if Syria’s violence continues, sending UN monitors might not be wise.

BEIRUT — A team of six UN observers set up headquarters in Damascus on Monday and began reaching out to the Syrian government and its opponents in a bid to start healing the country’s divides, even as growing violence jeopardized those plans.

According to a UN Security Council resolution passed Saturday, the monitors’ work depends on the continued observance of a cease-fire that went into effect Thursday.

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But numerous reports of truce violations by security forces and armed opponents of President Bashar Assad, which resulted in the deaths of 12 civilians and of an unspecified number of government forces Monday, left the feasibility of the mission in doubt.

The observer team is led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, and 25 more members are expected to arrive in the next few days, said a spokesman for Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria. All the observers are unarmed.

The Security Council is expected to authorize a formal monitoring team of about 250 people later this week, drawing on UN observers in the region.

The team will monitor implementation of a six-point peace plan proposed by Annan, accepted by Assad, and backed by Syria allies Russia and China as well as Western governments that have called for Assad to step down.

Speaking in New York on Monday, Susan E. Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters, “We are gravely concerned . . . that the violence continues, that the government seems to continue, if not in recent days intensify, bombardment in Homs in particular.’’

If the violence continues to escalate, “it will call into question the wisdom and viability of sending in the full monitoring presence,’’ Rice said.

In Brussels, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the cease-fire fragile but said it was essential that it be maintained so that political dialogue between the government and the opposition could begin.

“Just any small, unintended gunfire may break this fragile process,’’ Ban said, calling for restraint on all sides.

Activists said government troops shelled at least two neighborhoods in the rebel stronghold of Homs. As of Monday evening, 12 civilians had been killed in fighting in Homs, in the northwestern province of Idlib, and in the south of the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Some government forces had been killed, but the number was not known. It is difficult to verify claims because the government restricts media access.

Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, expressed concern there could be a resurgence of attacks by opposition forces and that security forces could use heavy artillery.

“Within the opposition, there’s a lot of concern that this process will only allow the regime to play for time and provide it with room for maneuver in terms of repression,’’ he said.

In a recent paper, Harling said both sides in the 13-month-old conflict have become more radicalized, with the escalating violence fueling extremism.

Hard-liners would be unlikely to abide by a cease-fire, he said, if they thought a political dialogue between Assad’s supporters and opponents was not in their interest.

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