UN to vote on observers for Syria

The United Nations Security Council will vote today on a resolution authorising the deployment of the first wave of military observers to monitor a ceasefire between the Syrian government and opposition fighters.

The United Nations Security Council will vote today on a resolution authorising the deployment of the first wave of military observers to monitor a ceasefire between the Syrian government and opposition fighters.

US ambassador Susan Rice, the current council president, said the council would vote at 5pm irish time.

The ceasefire, which formally took effect on Thursday, is at the centre of international envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan to end more than a year of bloodshed that has killed more than 9,000 people, according to the UN, and to launch inclusive Syrian-led talks on the country’s political future.

UN Security Council members met behind closed doors for several hours yesterday to discuss rival drafts by the US and its European allies and Russia, Syria’s most important council ally.

Both called for the deployment of an advance team of up to 30 unarmed military observers to initiate contacts with both sides and begin to report on implementation of “a full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties”.

Mr Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said an advance team of “around 10 or 12” observers, that could quickly be increased to 30, was “standing by to board planes and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible” once the security council approved their deployment.

Troops already in the region from Asian, African and South American countries acceptable to Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime could be used for the mission, Mr Fawzi said.

Additional security council approval would be required to increase the deployment to 250 observers, the ceiling Mr Annan was seeking, he said.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin had been unhappy with the initial Western-backed draft resolution, which included numerous demands on the Syrian government, including allowing the observers unimpeded freedom of movement and the right to interview any Syrian in private.

Those were dropped in the Russian version along with the Western call for condemnation of “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities”.

The Russians also watered down the West’s “demand” that the Syrian government visibly demonstrate that it is fully implementing Mr Annan’s plan, changing it to a weaker “call”.

“I’m not completely satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. But again, let’s see what comes out as a result,” Mr Churkin told reporters. “We want it to be a vote which will keep the security council united, which is crucial.”

Former UN secretary general Mr Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, asked the 15-nation security council to approve sending a UN observer mission as soon as possible.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon warned against overly high expectations, given the small size of the initial team and the fact that it would not be able to be everywhere, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

Syrian UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said that before any observers could be deployed, there would have to be a technical agreement on how the UN force would operate, Mr Annan would have to make an independent report on the situation in Syria, and the Syrian government would have to approve the whole package.

In the first major test of the UN-brokered truce, thousands of Syrians poured into the streets yesterday for anti-government protests, activists said.

Security forces responded by firing in the air and beating some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of widespread shelling, sniper attacks or other potential violations of the ceasefire.

Mr Fawzi told reporters the ceasefire has been “relatively respected” despite government troops and heavy weapons still in cities and continuing abuses.

“We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm,” he said. “We are thankful that there’s no heavy shelling, that the number of casualties are dropping, that the number of refugees who are crossing the borders are also dropping.”

Mr Annan told the security council during a closed video briefing on Thursday he was “encouraged” at the start of a fragile ceasefire but said the Syrian government failed to keep its pledge to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns.

Mr Fawzi quoted Annan as telling the council that “the continued presence of Syrian armed forces, including armour, in and around population centres, must end immediately. Violence in all its forms, including arbitrary arrests, torture and abductions, must stop”.

Mr Annan’s plan also calls for Syria to ensure freedom of movement for journalists. Mr Fawzi said Syria’s government provided Mr Annan with a list of 53 journalists who had been given visas to enter the country.

Mr Annan got a letter days earlier, Mr Fawzi said, listing 21 organisations with entry visas.

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