Saturday, February 24, 2018

U.N. monitors flee Syrian protest after gunfire

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian security forces opened fire Wednesday on anti-regime demonstrators surrounding the cars of a U.N. team meant to monitor a shaky cease-fire, sending the observers speeding off and protesters dashing for cover, according to activists and amateur videos.

The fresh violence in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, provided the first public glimpse of the work of the small team struggling to reinforce the international community's stumbling efforts to end 13 months of deadly conflict in Syria.

The shooting, which wounded at least eight people, could also complicate the deployment of a larger U.N. mission to help a cease-fire take hold between President Bashar Assad's forces and opposition fighters.

The difficulties of the team's mission was clear Wednesday during its visit to the suburb of Arbeen, just northeast of Damascus. The team did not announce its visit, but a local activist said residents guessed they were coming when tanks posted throughout the area withdrew early Wednesday.

People quickly drew up signs as well as a list of the 34 residents killed since the start of the uprising and information on the scores who have been detained, an Arbeen activist named Ahmed said via Skype. He declined to give his last name for fear of retribution.

Amateur videos posted online showed hundreds of demonstrators crowding around at least three U.N. Land Cruisers, waving Syrian flags and chanting against the regime.

A handwritten sign apparently taped by a demonstrator on one of the cars read, "The murderer keeps killing, the observers keep observing and the people keep up the revolution."

In another video, the protesters were walking down a boulevard surrounding the cars when a boom rang out, sending demonstrators scattering. Smoke rose in front of the crowd and the cars sped off, sirens blaring. In yet another video, protesters sprinted down side streets while gunfire is heard nearby.

Ahmed, the local activist, said the group was marching toward a square where the government had posted plain clothes security officers called shabiha and government supporters holding a counter demonstration.

"We started walking with the observers thinking that they'd protect us, but then the shabiha started shooting at us, even when the observers' cars were at the front of the march," he said.

After the observers left, security cars drove through the area firing, injuring about 20 people, he said.

The team's head, Col. Ahmed Himiche, declined to comment on the incident, saying the team would report only to the U.N.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight protesters were wounded in Arbeen. The group, which relies on an activist network in Syria, also said government forces shelled opposition areas in the provinces of Homs in central Syria and Idlib in the north.

For its part, Syria's state news agency said roadside bomb attacks in Idlib and Aleppo killed 10 security officers and a civilian.

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