BEIRUT -- The United Nations said Saturday it was suspending its observer mission in Syria because of escalating violence in the country, signaling a major setback in a U.N.-brokered effort to end violence in the strife-torn nation.
"U.N. observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice," Gen. Robert Mood, head of the observer mission, said in a statement.
Increasing violence "is limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects," Mood said.
The suspension will be reviewed "on a daily basis," the Norwegian general said. "Operations will resume when we see the situation is fit for us to carry out our mandated activities." The observers will remain in place and are not being pulled out of Syria, the U.N. said.
The unarmed mission, begun six weeks ago, has had several close calls, including a number of incidents in which observer vehicles were shot at. At least two roadside bombs have also exploded near observer vehicles, the U.N. said. The U.N. has reported no injuries to its staffers.
In statements to the press on Friday, the general bemoaned what he called “a lack of willingness” by both sides in the conflict “to seek a peaceful transition.” The general added: “Instead there is a push toward advancing military positions.”
The escalating violence, Mood suggested Friday, could be imperiling the U.N. mission, which now includes almost 300 unarmed observers. The observers are part of the six-point peace plan crafted by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. Both sides have widely violated the plan, which calls for a cease-fire and pullback of government forces from populated areas, among other points.
U.N. officials must decide soon what to do with the observer mission, which involves monitors from more than 60 U.N. nations, the general said. Its current mandate expires July 20.
The observers’ job, Mood said, is becoming “increasingly risky.” Participating nations must weigh whether the risk level is getting too high, said Mood, who acknowledged “frustration” among the monitors about the continuing violence.
“We would like to see — last week, yesterday, not tomorrow or next week — a different situation, where those who have their fingers on the trigger, whoever they are, make the decision to take their fingers off the triggers and give the Syrian people a chance to move forward,” Mood told reporters in Damascus on Friday.
Syrian opposition activists reported Saturday that government forces were pressing a major operation against rebel bastions in the restive suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Artillery and mortar bombardment of one suburb, Douma, continued overnight and had left at least eight dead and many wounded, according to various opposition activists, who said medical attention was urgently needed in the zone.
The reports of shelling in Douma and elsewhere around Damascus could not be independently verified.
Several suburbs of Damascus, including Douma, have become opposition strongholds during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad, though the capital itself is still considered a place where Assad has considerable support.
The Syrian government has in recent days launched offensives on multiple fronts seeking to dislodge rebels from territories that the opposition had overrun. Earlier this week, government forces regained control of the western highland town of Haffah, where most of the more than 20,000 residents fled during more than a week of fighting.
Opposition activists have also reported heavy shelling in recent days in the city of Homs and other rebel strongholds.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch
Photo: U.N. observers at their compound in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday. Credit: EPA