DAMASCUS, (AFP) — A veteran Norwegian peacekeeper headed to Damascus on Saturday to take charge of a UN mission overseeing a troubled truce as monitors reported 10 deserters killed in clashes with the army and Lebanon said it had intercepted arms headed to the rebels.
Major General Robert Mood was already en route for the Syrian capital when UN chief Ban Ki-moon announced his appointment late on Friday, diplomats said.
He takes over a mission that faces major obstacles and doubts before the full 300-member force approved by the UN Security Council has even gathered.
Mood himself has highlighted the “abyss of suspicion” between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, in the face of an uprising that has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year, according to UN figures.
Syrian troops killed at least 10 rebel fighters on Saturday in clashes in the Damascus region, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Earlier, the Britain-based watchdog spoke of fighting near a presidential palace in the Latakia region on the Mediterranean coast, but gave no immediate details of any casualties.
Ten civilians were among 19 people killed in renewed bloodshed on Friday, more than two weeks into a promised ceasefire, the watchdog said.
The Britain-based watchdog said two civilians died in the Damascus suicide bombing.
State media said 11 people were killed. Television footage showed gruesome images, including a severed hand and leg.
The official SANA news agency reported the interior ministry as saying “it will not tolerate the armed terrorist groups and vowed to strike with an iron fist those who are terrorising citizens.”
The opposition accused government forces of being behind the bombing and demanded an international inquiry.
“The Syrian National Council condemns this criminal act which is aimed at further undermining the security and stability of our country and at terrorising our people,” a statement said.
It said the bombing was aimed at torpedoing the six-point peace plan brokered by international peace envoy Kofi Annan and said: “none of the points has been implemented so far.
“We demand an urgent international inquiry to establish who is responsible for this criminal act,” it added.
The putative truce, which technically went into effect on April 12, has taken a battering each day, and the European Union said on Friday it was extremely concerned” about the persistent bloodshed.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said it was “clear that the Syrian government is not fulfilling its obligations and is failing to meet its commitments to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from population centres”.
She said the government “must ensure that the ceasefire holds”.
As Mood headed to Damascus, Norwegian Defence Minister Espen Barth Eide highlighted the “risky” task facing the unarmed observers.
“The situation in Syria remains fragile,” Eide said. “We therefore have to have realistic expectations in terms of what the observer force can achieve. Still, our hope is that the presence of the observers may help reduce the level of violence in the country.”
Mood, 54, knows Damascus well and was there to negotiate conditions for an advance team of UN observers.
The general “brings to his new position extensive command experience and knowledge of peacekeeping attained through service at the national and international levels,” Ban said in announcing the appointment.
He was head of the UN Truce Supervision Organisation, which monitors Middle East truces, from 2009 until 2011.
The general has not spoken publicly since he was nominated by Ban, but highlighted the “abyss of suspicion and violence between the Syrian regime and the opposition” in a recent interview with Norwegian media.
Mood said that when he was asked to lead the advanced team, “it was an easy choice to say yes.”
“It’s worth making the effort,” he added about the mission and the peace plan that Annan clinched with the Assad government. “The Syrian people deserve to have an opportunity.”
In other developments, the Lebanese navy has intercepted three containers of weapons destined for Syrian rebel forces on board a ship originating from Libya, a security official told AFP on Saturday.
The cargo contained heavy machineguns, artillery shells, rockets, rocket launchers and other explosives, the official said.
An AFP reporter saw three army trucks leave the small port of Selaata for Beirut with the seized containers, escorted by eight jeeps and a helicopter.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly charged that weapons are being smuggled from Lebanon to rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.