Assad tanks punish protesters after UN team drives out



As the UN team drove out of the Damascus suburb of Douma yesterday, regime tanks were said to have rolled in – offering another indication that President Bashar al-Assad is adopting a strategy of brutal mass punishment for those who turn out to show observers their discontent with the regime.

The mounting reports of carnage threatened to undermine UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's efforts to bring an end to the bloodshed just hours before he was due to brief the UN Security council on the implementation of his faltering peace plan last night.

Activists said that shortly after the monitoring team left Douma yesterday morning – their second trip there in as many days – the tanks moved in, leaving five people dead and more than a hundred injured. Thousands of dancing and cheering protesters had swamped the UN cars as they arrived on Monday.

A video posted online purporting to have been filmed in the area yesterday pans across the suburb's skyline as the sound of explosions and intense gunfire can be heard. Bullets whistle past the camera and a column of smoke rises in the distance. "There is a war in Douma," said Moaz, an activist based there. "The observers come here, it is quiet and we go and demonstrate and show how we feel about this regime, but when they leave, we are punished."

It was a similar story in Hama the day before, where the true horror of the onslaught only began to fully emerge yesterday. At least 50 people were killed a day after the observers visited, with activists again claiming they were suffering for protesting in front of the monitors. After intense shelling in the district of Mashaa Al-Arbaeen the security forces were reported to have driven down streets in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, firing indiscriminately.

Observers returned to the city yesterday afternoon and two will set up base there. A similar strategy in Homs appears to have quelled shell attacks.

Mr Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, yesterday said there was "great concern" that areas were being targeted after the departure of monitors.

"It's totally unacceptable, it should stop immediately," he told Al Jazeera English, adding that it underscored the need to deploy more observers as quickly as possible. Just 11 of an advance team of 30 monitors are in the country so far, but an expanded team of 300 is expected to begin being dispatched next week.

There were also reports of ceasefire breaches by the rebels yesterday, with three Syrian military officers killed in the capital, according to state media and opposition groups, who also reported that at least three others were wounded in a large car bomb blast outside an Iranian cultural centre. Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, has been accused of supporting the regime with funding and weapons.

As the violence continued, the international community appeared to grow increasingly weary of the continued flouting of Mr Annan's six-point plan. The US envoy to the UN, Susan Rice, said her government's "patience is exhausted".

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