Syrian attack kills 21; rebels hold U.N. monitors

BEIRUT Tue May 15, 2012 11:52pm IST

Members of the United Nations observers mission in Syria are seen near portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his father, the late president Hafez, at a hotel in Damascus, before heading to the areas where protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad have been taking place, May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Members of the United Nations observers mission in Syria are seen near portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his father, the late president Hafez, at a hotel in Damascus, before heading to the areas where protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad have been taking place, May 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 21 people were killed on Tuesday in an attack in northern Syria, activists said, and members of a team of U.N. monitors caught in the battle said they were left in rebel hands.

Reuters asked one of the four monitors by phone if they were being held prisoner. He did not reply. Another said: "We are safe with the (rebel) Free Army."

A spokesman for the rebel military council said the rebels were working on a safe exit for them.

"They are now with the Free Army which is protecting them. If they leave, the regime will terminate them because they have witnessed one of its crimes and it does not want them to tell the truth," he told Reuters.

Insurgents and pro-government media blamed on each other for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province.

The monitor told Reuters gunfire had erupted as a seven-man U.N. team toured toured Khan Sheikhoun, then a blast damaged one of the group's vehicles.

Other rebel and opposition sources put the death toll from the attack as high as 66.

Pro-government Addounia TV said "gunmen" had opened fire on the monitors, without reference to casualties.

Internet footage appeared to show a white vehicle like those used by monitors with damage to its front end. In Damascus Major General Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. monitoring mission, told reporters the team was safe, without elaborating.

A UK-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said President Bashar al-Assad's forces had opened fire on a funeral procession in the town, about 220 km (140 miles) north of Damascus.

The group said a total of 46 people had been killed by government forces across the country. There was no independent confirmation of any of the claims and counter-claims from Syria, which has limited journalists' access during its uprising.

OPPOSITION VOTES TO KEEP SECULAR HEAD

The attack came hours after the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group in which the influence of Islamists is extensive, re-elected Burhan Ghalioun, a sociologist long resident in France, as its leader for another three months.

People involved in the vote said the secular Ghalioun was viewed as acceptable to Syria's array of sects and ethnicities.

Damascus said more than half of eligible voters turned out for a parliamentary election last week, part of reforms it says show Assad's intent to resolve the uprising peacefully.

Khalaf al-Azzawi, head of the judiciary body that oversaw the election, said 51 percent of eligible voters had turned out, down slightly from an election in 2007 when the rule of Assad's Baath party was unchallenged.

At least one independent figure made it into the assembly, according to results Azzawi read out in a televised news conference in Damascus. No figures were given for turnout in cities and towns under siege by government forces.

"The election gave the people the broadest possible representation," he told a televised news conference in Damascus. "The election took place with full transparency, democracy, integrity, supervised and monitored by independent judicial councils which were not pressured by any side."

Opposition leaders dismissed the election in advance as a ruse to buy more time for crushing dissent and said voting was not feasible in areas under continued siege and shelling from Assad's security forces.

The vote follows amendments to Syria's constitution to allow more political parties, a move Damascus has cited as evidence of good faith to move toward a political solution to the bloodshed.

A peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in April calls for the release of detainees and for peaceful protests to be allowed.

SAUDI-IRANIAN RIVALRY

Persistent bloodshed since has led Saudi Arabia to warn that Annan's plan is losing credibility. For Sunni Saudi Arabia, the demise of Assad would deal a welcome blow to his backers in Shi'ite Muslim Iran, Riyadh's rival for influence in the Gulf.

Elsewhere on Syria's battleground, opposition activists said government forces killed two insurgents in the eastern oil town of Deir al-Zor and continued a campaign of arrests that they said had seen hundreds rounded up in recent days.

The Annan plan also calls on Assad's forces and rebels to allow free distribution of humanitarian aid, over which the United Nations is at loggerheads with Syria.

The United Nations has rebuffed a demand by Damascus that it manage the delivery of all humanitarian aid to a million people in areas stricken by the conflict.

"That position is a non-starter ... as it should be," said one U.N. diplomat. "OCHA (U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) can't allow the Syrian government to use it as a way to get people (they want to arrest) or to deliver aid only to government supporters."

On Tuesday, relief group Medecins sans Frontieres said that its fieldwork in the northern Idlib region indicated health facilities were being targeted by combatants, and called on all sides to the conflict to "respect the physical integrity of wounded persons, doctors and health care facilities".

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament on Tuesday he would visit Moscow and raise the issue of Syria with Russia, one of Damascus's few allies.

CROSS-BORDER RIPPLES

The sectarian dimension of the uprising against Syria has given rise to fears of a spillover beyond its borders, including neighbouring Lebanon, which has seen three days of fighting between members of the Alawite sect - to which Syria's ruling circle belongs - and Sunni Islamists.

At least eight people have been killed and over 70 wounded since fighters in adjacent Alawite and Sunni districts of Tripoli traded fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, following the arrest of a Sunni man who has been charged with membership of a "terrorist" organisation.

Syria has demanded Lebanon - where it has influence with the military and intelligence apparatus dating back to the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath - crack down on supporters of insurgents moving arms to them across the Syrian border.

Young men in the Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tebbaneh shouted "There goes the Syrian army, there go the collaborators", as a Lebanese armoured vehicle rolled through its streets on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Khaled Oweis in Amman, Erika Solomon in Tripoli, Tom Miles in Geneva and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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