Violence Forces U.N. To Halt Mission In Syria

The head of the U.N. mission in Syria said monitoring activities were being put on hold because of escalating violence in the country. Scott Simon talks with NPR's Deborah Amos about the situation.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Nations is suspending its observer mission in Syria because of growing violence there. The official announcement came today from the head of the mission, General Robert Mood. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Mood's rank is major general.] The statement released from U.N. headquarters in Damascus cited rising violence over the past 10 days, and charged that both parties - the Syrian military and the armed rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army - are putting civilians lives at risk, and the lives of their monitors. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Damascus. Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And I know this suspension comes a day after General Mood said - told a room full of reporters, the mission was close to failure. Was there a last straw here?

AMOS: Well, this is connected, and U.N. officials said so. General Mood gave a very bleak assessment yesterday, and he said that there was little prospect that the fighting will end soon. Overnight, the military offensive against the rebels, and against protesters, continued throughout the country. And it became clear this morning, as we were waiting for the monitors to head out, that something was up. So the short announcement suspending operations, cites this rising violence as well as the danger for these 300 unarmed monitors.

They've been threatened by pro-government crowds. They've been shot at; denied entrance to towns and villages under siege by the government. The announcement today said engagement with the parties would be halted. Now, these monitors have contact not just with the government but with rebel commanders; and with activists who report on civilian causalities, and the needs of those civilians who've been trapped by the fighting. All that is going to be suspended.

SIMON: I think a lot of people will wonder why the U.N. decides to do this now, and not following the Houla massacre.

AMOS: In the last 10 days, the violence has escalated. After the Houla massacre, they felt they could still do their job. Now, the army has unleashed this blistering offensive that began last Friday. This was after the Free Syrian Army - the rebels - hit the capital and brought the fight, for the first time, to Damascus. And that appears to be the spark for the army to take the gloves off.

Diplomatic sources say the Syrian government had restrained the Army somewhat, after the U.N. monitors arrived. That massacre you mentioned in Houla, reported to be committed by pro-government militia - after that, the Free Syrian Army announced that they wouldn't abide by the cease-fire. So sources in the capital say there was a rise in military casualties, and the army complained bitterly that the rebels were expanding the areas they controlled. So over the last 10 days, the army has been pounding those strongholds with artillery, attack helicopters; and there has been a huge spike in civilian deaths.

SIMON: Any prospect for any kind of U.N. mission to continue in Syria, that you see?

AMOS: It is to go until the end of July, and then the U.N. will have to decide. This is a warning shot by the U.N. commander here. The Syrian government has embraced the mission. They have been saying that they are not the violators of the cease-fire; it's the rebels. But the U.N. blamed both sides for continuing the fighting, and they say they cannot do their job until the violence is reined in.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos, in Damascus for us today. Thanks so much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

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