UN observers leave Syria as mandate expires


This article titled “UN observers leave Syria as mandate expires” was written by Conal Urquhart and agencies, for Guardian Weekly on Saturday 18th August 2012 15.00 UTC

United Nations observers have begun to leave Damascus as their mission in Syria comes to an end.

The last 100 out of 300 observers have been departing throughout Saturday – their mandate expires after midnight on Sunday – as their commander spoke of his frustration at being unable to minimise the violence.

General Babacar Gaye said both rebels and government forces were failing to carry out their duty to protect civilians. “Initially the ceasefire was respected, violence decreased and we were able to do our work throughout the country,” he said.

“By the middle of June it was clear that the parties were no longer committed to the ceasefire and the result has been an escalation in violence.”

The departure of the UN observers came as the UN appointed a new mediator to replace Kofi Annan. Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat, has said he does not know how he will carry out his role, although he believes it is too early to say whether President Bashar al-Assad should step down.

Brahimi said he was aware of the divisions in the security council which hastened Annan’s departure and would discuss his objectives this week in New York.

“When I go to New York I will be asking for lots of things. How to organise ourselves, whom we are going to talk to, what kind of plan we are going to put together,” he told Reuters.

Turkey has begun handing out food and other humanitarian aid to Syrians on their shared border, Turkey’s disaster and emergency body said on Saturday.

“The distribution of humanitarian aid by our country right on the border with Syria has begun,” Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) said in a statement.

Turkey has told the United Nations of the new practice and has opened a centre in its south-eastern town of Gaziantep to receive international aid, AFAD said, adding that it needed dried, tinned and baby food, bedding and personal hygiene items.

According to aid agencies, the humanitarian situation in Syria has deteriorated as fighting escalates, cutting off civilians from food supplies, healthcare and other assistance.

The UN refugee agency says that more than 170,000 Syrians have been registered as refugees in neighbouring countries – Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government denied reports on Saturday that President Bashar al-Assad’s deputy Farouq al-Sharaa had tried to defect to Jordan.

The vice-president’s office said he “never thought for a moment about leaving the country”, as government forces pressed an offensive against rebels, bombarding parts of Aleppo in the north and hitting an insurgent-held town in the oil-producing east.

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