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Head of U.N. force in Syria says monitors’ presence has cut government violence

The United Nations general leading the mission to monitor a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Syria said Thursday that he believed the mission was beginning to have an effect.

“Since I arrived on Sunday, we’ve seen less mortar fire and less shelling,” Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters at a news conference in this city, which became a symbol of the bloodshed that has convulsed this country when in February it was bombarded for 26 straight days by Syrian forces trying to uproot armed insurgents.

But the challenge of Mood’s mission was evident as he took a whirlwind tour of battered parts of central Syria, visiting the city of Hama and a number of neighborhoods in Homs, the country’s third largest city. As he met with a commander from the Free Syrian Army in Khaldiya, one of the neighborhoods in Homs controlled by rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, gunfire chattered and a tank fired off a shell. A group of rebels carried a dead fighter past the parked U.N. vehicles to a nearby mosque.

Homs appeared largely deserted. Most shops were shuttered, and on Fares al Khoury Street, a thoroughfare that has become a divider between government and rebel-held territory, virtually every building appeared to have been damaged by the fighting. Uncollected garbage lay on curbs and sidewalks.

Fifty U.N. observers had arrived in Syria as of Thursday, out of a total of 300 expected. Mood said he hoped that all of the observers would arrive in two to three weeks.

Anti-government activists have generally corroborated Mood’s statement about a decrease in government shelling, but they complain that sniper fire and the use of anti-aircraft weapons against buildings continues, as do campaigns of arbitrary detention. Activists in the northern city of Idlib said shelling killed 10 people there on Tuesday, part of 43 deaths recorded that day by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London, which keeps the most detailed record of casualties in the country and says more than 11,000 people, the majority civilians, have been killed by violence since March 2011.

The Syrian government also complains of rebel violations. On Thursday, it announced the burial of nine people it said were killed by rebel violence, bringing to 32 the number of burials of government security personnel announced by the state’s SANA news agency since Monday. It’s not clear from the funeral announcements when the dead actually were killed.

Asked if a statistical record were available of breaches of the cease-fire, a spokesman for the U.N. mission said such assessments would wait until the full contingent of monitors was in place. However, Mood said the Syrian government needed to take the first step toward ending the mutual distrust between the two sides and moving toward negotiations.

“The strongest party needs to make the first move,” Mood said, adding that in some places, the observers had seen “positive steps from the government.”

During the past week, some anti-government activists said Syrian citizens had become afraid of speaking to the monitors, especially after government forces allegedly carried out retaliation against some who had in Hama. But in Khaldiya on Thursday, a few dozen residents and fighters greeted Mood’s team and the journalists who accompanied them. Syrian security forces who’d accompanied the observers in other parts of Homs pulled back as the observers crossed into what was clearly rebel-held territory.

“Why should we be scared?” one man asked. “They are killing us anyway.”

“The kids have started asking ‘Why aren’t they shooting?’ when it stops,” said another man.

A man who identified himself as a local doctor also came forward to share his concerns. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced inside the country, and tens of thousands have fled to neighboring countries. One man reported that he’d changed residences 15 times in three weeks because of government shelling.

“There are 16 schools in Waar that are completely full of refugees,” the doctor said, referring to another part of the city.

Mood said his team had complete freedom of movement and that observers would also monitor other points of the six-point peace plan devised by Kofi Annan, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria. In addition to a cease-fire, the plan calls for the release of political prisoners and freedom of movement for journalists visiting the country.

Though the Syrian government has apparently issued more visas for journalists in past weeks, movement is still prohibited without a government-employed minder unless journalists are traveling with the U.N. observers.

There are 12 observers now in Homs, the most of any city. Initially, a pair of them remained in Homs after the observers’ first visit there on Saturday.

“We talked to one of them and we told them that the shelling and the killing had stopped because of them,” said Abu Rami, an activist in Homs who met with the observers on their initial visit. “When we finished they told us they would go back to Damascus, and we appealed to them to stay in Homs. So they made us a promise that two of them would stay in Homs.”

The monitors themselves have been directly exposed to the violence.

“We tried to take them to Al Bayada but we couldn’t get to Al Bayada,” Abu Rami said, referring to another neighborhood in the city. “Snipers killed one man and wounded one. This happened in front of the monitors. After that, the monitors became afraid and left the area.”