Syria: In Wake of Field Visit, Head of UN Observers Voices Concern Over Aleppo

GENEVA–(ENEWSPF)–30 July 2012.  In the wake of his first field visit, during which he witnessed heavy shelling, the acting head of UN observers in Syria today met with Government officials and called for an end to the fighting that has wracked the Middle Eastern country, in addition to voicing concern about ongoing combat taking place in the city of Aleppo.

“It was a good opportunity for me to discuss UNSMIS activities in the coming 20 days. I stressed the need for all sides to end the bloodshed – Syrians killing Syrians – and for all sides to commit to political dialogue,” the UN Military Adviser, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, told a press conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“I explained to the Government that our activities will be focused around the mandated task of resolution 2059. We will be monitoring the level of violence and the use of heavy weapons in Syria” he added. “We will also be assessing if there is readiness and, if possible, progress for local confidence-building measures and national dialogue. This, of course, hinges on UNSMIS being provided the space, security and access to fulfil its mandate.”

Lieutenant General Gaye took over the leadership of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) last week, following the departure of Major-General Robert Mood.

Around half of the military observers serving with UNSMIS have been sent home, with the Mission operating on a reduced basis in a reduced number of locations. The move follows the Security Council’s recent extension of UNSMIS’ mandate – under resolution 2059 – for a final period of 30 days, with any further renewals possible only if it can be confirmed that the use of heavy weapons has ceased and a reduction in violence by all sides is sufficient to permit UNSMIS to implement its mandate.

Established in April, the Mission had suspended its regular patrols due to the escalating violence, in which over 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 16 months ago. Over recent days, there have been reports of an escalation in violence in many towns and villages, as well as Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second-biggest city.

On Sunday, Lieutenant General Gaye took part in his first field since assuming the acting leadership of UNSMIS, paying a visit to the cities of Homs and ar-Rastan to assess the situation, including the use of heavy weapons. While there, he also met with the provincial Governor and members of the Free Syrian Army to try to “gauge their readiness for local engagement and dialogue.”

“During my visit to Homs, I was personally able to witness heavy shelling, from artillery and mortars, ongoing in the neighbourhoods of the city,” Lieutenant General Gaye said. “Ar-Rastan was heavily damaged by an intensive shelling campaign and fierce fighting. There were damaged tanks left on the side of the streets; public infrastructure, such as bridges, was destroyed; and homes on the main roads inside the town were largely damaged.”

He added, “I did see families, women and children in some inner neighbourhoods of the town, in addition to a few shops open, selling food.”

In his remarks to reporters, the acting UNSMIS chief also expressed his concerns about Aleppo, which, according to reports, has been subjected to intense fighting between Government and opposition forces over recent days.

“My observers there have reported an upsurge in the violence, with helicopters, tanks and artillery being used,” Lieutenant General Gaye said. “I call on the parties, again as stated by the Joint Special Envoy, to exercise restraint and avoid further bloodshed – it is imperative that both sides respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.”

UNSMIS is tasked with monitoring the cessation of violence in Syria, as well as monitoring and supporting the full implementation of the six-point peace plan put forward by the Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States for the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan.

That plan calls for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue, and unrestricted access to the country for the international media.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency today said it had received reports of around 200,000 people fleeing the fighting in Aleppo, with many of those people displaced within other parts of Syria, which has made humanitarian access to them difficult.

“They are very few who reached Turkey… this could have a number of reasons. It might be very difficult to pass the roads leading to Turkey. So it’s very difficult to say right now what the people of Aleppo are going through. As soon they cross we will be talking to them,” a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming, said today.

She also noted the difficulties involved in estimating the number of refugees, as the total number reflects only those people who come forward and register or ask for assistance.