A United Nations peacekeeping mission to Syria risked descending into farce yesterday as Bashar al-Assad's army continued its unrelenting shelling of Homs and fighting raged elsewhere as the handful of observers spent their first day in the country to monitor a supposed ceasefire.
Dressed in army fatigues and blue berets, the advance team of six observers, led by a Moroccan, Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, set about negotiating the mission's ground rules with Syrian officials. As they did so, activists said yesterday's death toll across Syria had reached 30 as the beleaguered city of Homs was pummelled once more with "three or four bombings a minute", and a fierce assault was reported in Idlib.
Seeming to ignore the fact that the ceasefire lay in tatters in some areas, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, urged "maximum restraint" from Syrian forces to "keep this cessation of violence". He also urged the government to ensure freedom of movement for the monitors.
A further two dozen observers are expected to join the UN mission this week. The team, which will monitor the implementation of all six points of Mr Annan's peace plan, will report back its initial findings to the UN Security Council tomorrow. The council will then decide whether to bolster the number of blue berets in the country to 250, but that depends whether the ceasefire is holding.
After an initial lull in heavy artillery fire after last Thursday's ceasefire deadline, the situation deteriorated at the weekend. Activists said yesterday's assault on Homs, with mortar rounds and tank shells, targeted neighbourhoods including Khalidiya and Bayadah, where Free Syrian Army fighters are still entrenched. Waleed Fares, an activist in Khalidiya, said the shelling was some of the worst he had seen since the ceasefire started.
"For the past couple of hours it has been very, very heavy with at least three or four bombings every minute," he said. "The UN observers should come and see the bombing now, but it is all just another game for the regime to give them more time to kill us. How will [the UN] monitor the whole country? I don't expect to see them in my neighbourhood."
The continued violence raised concerns that the UN mission will end in failure. An Arab League team which came before it was criticised for providing a "cover" that allowed President Assad to continue slaughtering his people.
Mustafa Alani, of the Gulf States Research Centre, said he had doubts that the extra UN monitors would ever make it to Syria. "The next few days will be a major test," he said. "The UN are not meant to make peace, they are meant to be there to monitor a peace. Given the situation on the ground, itis hard to see how they will end up reporting back positively to the UN Security Council and the other monitors will be sent."
The Syrian regime says it is cracking down on the "terrorist groups" it claims have stepped up attacks since the ceasefire. The city of Hama was also shelled yesterday after clashes between Free Syrian Army fighters and Assad troops. In Idlib, activists said at least 10 people were killed by helicopter gunships and mortars.