Activists urge UN to increase presence in Syria

While areas where the monitors are were quiet, 43 people were killed in the countryside

Beirut

Activists expressed their frustration yesterday with the small number of international observers in Syria as tank shells rained down on agricultural areas near the capital and small farming villages in the north, killing at least six people from the same family.

Major-General Robert Mood, the head of the UN monitoring mission in the country, said he believed his team had had a "calming effect" to the country. But while activists said heavy artillery lay quiet in Homs and other large rebel bastions where observer teams are stationed, 43 people were reported killed, largely in assaults in the countryside.

Mishmishan village, home to just a few thousand, came under fierce assault in the early hours of the morning, with a tank shell directly hitting the house of the Youssef family, according to activists.

Bursting into a clinic where a young boy is being treated for injuries to his legs and back, a man begins to reel off the names of family members who were killed, as recorded in an online video. Counting them on his fingers, he says his mother, sister, two brothers and a nephew were among those who died. "That's my brother and that's my nephew!" he says pointing to a body lying in a pool of blood on the floor and another on a gurney.

Another video shows the funeral procession through the village, where a crowd of hundreds chanting for the downfall of the regime follow trucks carrying the bodies. The cameraman holds up a piece of paper listing seven names – six with the surname Youssef.

The dead included a seven-year-old girl, and two other children aged between 10 and 15 years old, said Fadee Yassen, a local activist. At least two others died in the shelling in the area, activists said, and dozens were injured, some of whom were evacuated 25km to Turkey for medical treatment.

Regime forces also bombarded the eastern Ghouta, a lush agricultural area just outside the capital where there were reports of troops slaughtering cattle. Fierce clashes also took place in the tribal Sunni heartland of Deir Ezzor, when the army hit back after 12 of their soldiers were killed by rebels, activists said.

The violence underlines the difficulties faced by the UN observers attempting to monitor a truce which barely took hold. The last update from the UN said there were just 16 in the country, but the organisation hopes numbers will reach 50 by the end of the week. It is not clear when the full team of 300 authorised by the UN Security Council will be deployed. The Local Co-ordination Committees, a network of activists, complained that the UN observers, with large contingencies of regime security forces in tow, spent just minutes in the Idlib town of Ariha yesterday, which was shelled most of the previous day.

"The observers then arrived in Jisr al-Shughour. The activists there tried to take the observers to the locations where the regime's military machinery is stationed; however, rejection was their answer," it said, adding that 141 people had been killed in the region since observers arrived, including 18 yesterday.

Speaking to BBC World Service yesterday, Maj-Gen Mood rejected criticism of the mission. "There are not any other options on the table at the moment," he said, adding that even small numbers can quell violence.

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