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All 300 U.N. observers to be in Syria by end of May: U.N

Published: 05-01-12

From Reuters:

UNITED NATIONS | Tue May 1, 2012 12:39pm EDT

(Reuters) - The United Nations is accelerating deployment of unarmed observers to Syria to ensure all 300 are on the ground by the end of May to monitor a shaky U.N.-backed ceasefire, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said on Tuesday.

"We have 24 observers on the ground and I fully expect this number to increase rapidly over the next two weeks so that UNSMIS (U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria) will build up to full operational strength by the end of May," Ladsous told reporters.

Despite the small numbers and continued violence in Syria, where the conflict between forces loyal to Assad and an opposition pushing for his ouster is entering its fourteenth month, Ladsous the monitors were making a difference.

"The numbers are still small at the moment but they have had a visible impact," he said, adding that the shelling of towns like Homs had subsided after the arrival of U.N. blue berets.

A senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity that Ladsous was hoping to have 100 observers on the ground by the end of next week.

"We have 150 solid commitments (for observers) which are already being processed or already being deployed," Ladsous said. "We need more from member states .... (But) more pledges are coming in every day so I am confident we will do it."

Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved the deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to Syria and an unspecified number of civilian experts to monitor human rights violations and other issues. The council was acting to support international mediator Kofi Annan's peace plan.

The Syrian government has so far refused three observers based on their nationalities. The Western diplomat said they were Europeans, but did not specify from which countries.

Ladsous said U.N. observers had reported violations of the truce, implemented on April 12, by both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's security forces and opposition fighters.

He said U.N. observers had spotted heavy weapons such as armored personnel carriers and Howitzer cannons. The Syrian government has repeatedly pledged to withdraw heavy weapons from towns though U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticized Damascus for not doing so.

Ladsous added that the United Nations had yet to agree with Damascus on the use of U.N. planes and helicopters by UNSMIS, which is headed by Norwegian General Robert Mood.

"The matter (of air assets) is still under review but it is a very important element," he said.

Ladsous said that the group's freedom of movement had improved in recent days.

"We did have some initial few restrictions of freedom of movement for our people which was represented to us as motivated by security considerations," he said. "But I would say that over the last week or so the freedom has been ensured and they can actually go to the places they want to visit."

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chaicu)