UN team stranded after Syria attack

UN team stranded after Syria attack
UN peace envoy Kofi Annan

International observers who came under fire in northern Syria were apparently stranded in the area overnight, but United Nations officials hope to evacuate the group within hours.

A roadside bomb struck the team’s vehicles yesterday during a mission in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, but none of the observers were wounded.

The attack, which came minutes after witnesses said regime forces gunned down mourners at a funeral procession nearby, dealt a fresh blow to international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.

Activists said the violence continued today with regime forces opening fire from the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, said the heavy machine-gun fire has so far prevented people from holding services for some of the 20 mourners who were killed at the funeral.

The UN said rebel forces gave the six observers shelter in the town, which has witnessed anti-government protests since an uprising against president Bashar Assad’s regime began in March last year.

Major General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the UN team, told reporters today that he had spoken to the observers in Khan Sheikhoun by telephone and that they “told us that they are happy and safe where they are”.

Ahmad Fawzi, Mr Annan’s spokesman, said in a statement that the mission will recover the observers later today. “The UN staff members are co-located with opposition elements ... and are reportedly being treated well.”

Mr Fawzi said the observers were caught up in the explosion as they met the rebel Free Syrian Army. He said three vehicles were damaged.

More than 200 UN observers have been deployed throughout Syria to monitor a ceasefire agreement that has been repeatedly violated by both sides since it took effect on April 12.

Yesterday’s attack was at least the second time the UN observers have been caught up in the violence. Last week, a roadside bomb struck a Syrian military truck in the south of the country seconds after Maj Gen Mood rode by in a convoy.

It was not clear who was behind the blast and no one claimed responsibility.

A video posted by activists online appeared to show the moment the UN vehicle was struck. The video shows two white vehicles marked with the UN logo with people milling around it, and two others parked a few yards behind.

The blast blew off the front of the first vehicle and sent up a plume of smoke as people screamed and ran for cover. The four cars are then seen slowly driving away.

It was not clear how close the observers were to the funeral shootings, but if confirmed, a regime attack on civilians directly in front of the observer mission could put pressure on them to describe publicly what they are seeing in Syria. They report back to the UN but have not publicised their findings.

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