BEIRUT -- An angry crowd of Syrians tossing rocks and metal rods surrounded United Nations vehicles on Tuesday and prevented observers from reaching the besieged town of Haffah, the U.N. said, highlighting the tenuous status of the monitoring team in Syria.
Three U.N. vehicles were later fired upon after turning back and heading for another Syrian battle zone, northwestern Idlib province, the world body said in a statement.
The source of the gunfire was not immediately known, the U.N. said. No injuries were reported among the observers, who are unarmed.
The highland zone of Haffah has emerged as a relatively new flashpoint in the past week as government forces sought to oust insurgents occupying the strategic area, inland from the important port city of Latakia.
Opposition activists have reported scores of casualties as the military used artillery bombardment, tanks and helicopter gunships in a bid to retake Haffah.
The U.N. this week confirmed opposition accounts of the deployment of military helicopters in central Homs province, epicenter of the ongoing insurrection against the government of President Bashar Assad. The government says it is fighting "terrorists" armed from abroad.
The U.S. State Department has voiced concern about a possible “massacre” in Haffah, where many civilians are believed to be trapped.
It was unclear whether the rock-throwers who blocked U.N. access to Haffah were pro-government advocates or rebel sympathizers. The crowd “appeared to be residents of the area,” said the U.N. statement.
All U.N. observers were later reported back in their bases and secure, the U.N. said.
It was at least the second time in a week that U.N. observers in Syria had been fired upon; no injuries were reported in the earlier incident, near the city of Hama.
On at least two occasions last month, roadside bombs exploded near U.N. convoys in Syria, with no injuries reported. It was unclear if the U.N. contingents had been targeted in those blasts.
The U.N. staffers, currently numbering about 300, are supposed to be observing a truce. But with the cease-fire in tatters, they have instead been visiting conflict zones and documenting battles and atrocities, while also trying to arrange safe passage for trapped civilians.
Though many Syrians are said to support the U.N. mission, which also has at least the professed backing of Assad, partisans on both sides of the polarizing conflict have voiced reservations.
Some rebel supporters see the U.N.-brokered peace plan as allowing Assad to buy time for his embattled rule after 15 months of civil conflict that has cost more than 10,000 lives. And some government loyalists view the U.N. effort as cover for an international plot to oust Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Opposition activists reported dozens more people killed Tuesday in government shelling and clashes throughout Syria, part of an ongoing escalation of the conflict. Opposition accounts of casualties could not be independently verified.
On the political front, a spokesman said U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan was urging diplomats to “twist arms if necessary” to pressure all parties in the Syrian conflict to implement Annan’s faltering six-point peace plan, which includes a cease-fire and steps toward a political transition in Syria. The plan has been widely ignored, with each side blaming the other for its failure.
“Diplomacy has intensified from all parties,” the spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told reporters in Geneva.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: An image made available by the United Nations on Tuesday shows United Nations observers inspecting a residential area at Talbisah in Homs city on Monday. Credit: David Manyua / European Pressphoto Agency