UN mission urges all sides to respect Syria truce as toll mounts
DAMASCUS - UN observers said on Sunday that it was "extremely important" that all sides respect a promised ceasefire in Syria as a veteran peacekeeper flew in to take command after a new day of bloodshed.
A mission spokesman said that an advance party of truce observers had already set up base in the major troublespots in the 13-month conflict.
He said it was a "matter of the utmost urgency" for the world body to expand the flegling mission to the full 300 personnel authorised by the Security Council.
A full 32 people were killed on Saturday, more than two weeks into the ceasefire brokered by international peace envoy Kofi Annan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"It is extremely important in the context of our mandate that there is full cessation of violence in all its forms by all the parties," said mission spokesman Neeraj Singh.
"That is the necessary first imperative and that is what we are here to monitor and support."
Singh said that even though the UN mission still only had a small advance team deployed, it was already on the ground in major protest centres that have been at the centre of bloodshed the United Nations estimates has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year.
"Even from the advance team that was here until now, as you see, apart from Damascus, we have permanently based observers in Homs, Hama, Daraa and Idlib," he said.
"I think things have been moving as fast as possible. This is a matter of utmost urgency for the UN. All efforts are in place to make sure that we get the people on the ground as quickly as possible."
Veteran Norwegian peacekeeper Major General Robert Mood was expected in Damascus during the afternoon to take charge of the UN force.
Mood, 54, knows the Syrian capital well and negotiated with the authorities the conditions of deployment for the advance team.
The general "brings to his new position extensive command experience and knowledge of peacekeeping attained through service at the national and international levels," UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in announcing the appointment.
Mood was head of the UN Truce Supervision Organisation, which monitors Middle East truces, from 2009 until 2011.
The general has not spoken publicly since he was nominated on Friday, but highlighted the "abyss of suspicion and violence between the Syrian regime and the opposition" in a recent interview with Norwegian media.
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," he added about the mission and the peace plan that Annan clinched with the government of President Bashar al-Assad. "The Syrian people deserve to have an opportunity."
In Saturday's violence, government troops killed at least 10 rebel fighters in the Damascus region, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory said.
Twenty-two civilians also died -- eight in flashpoint central Hama, two in nearby Homs, three in Idlib near the Turkish border, four in Aleppo, four in Damascus province and one in Al-Raqqah in the northeast, it added.
Separately, the official SANA news agency reported three soldiers and two "terrorists" killed in Syria's second-biggest city Aleppo in clashes between troops and "armed terrorist groups."
And in what was believed to be the first case of Westerners going missing in the violence-swept country, Budapest said two Hungarians had been kidnapped.
A putative truce, which technically came into effect on April 12, has taken a daily battering, and the European Union on Friday expressed extreme concern about the persistent bloodshed.
As the fighting raged, Lebanese intelligence officers were questioning the crew of a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel on Sunday over allegations it was carrying arms to Syrian rebels.
The interception of the ship by Lebanon -- currently governed by a largely pro-Syrian coalition -- gave grist to Russian opposition to the tough Western and Arab line taken against its longtime Middle East ally.
Lebanon said it had intercepted three containers of heavy machineguns, artillery shells, rockets, rocket launchers and other explosives destined for rebel forces on a ship originating in Libya.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly charged that weapons are being smuggled from Lebanon to rebels fighting to oust Assad.
On Saturday, government newspaper Tishrin wrote that the UN chief "avoids talking about abuses by armed groups and focuses his blame solely on Syria, as usual. He encourages these groups to continue to commit more crimes and terrorist acts."
The Russian foreign ministry said "we are convinced that the terrorists operating in Syria need a decisive rebuff, and that all domestic and outside players need to prevent any support" from reaching the rebel forces.