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Ban demands UN access to bombarded Syrian city

Agence France-Presse
UN leader Ban Ki-moon demands UN access to the Syrian city of Al-Heffa amid what he calls a 'dangerous intensification' of the conflict in the country

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as he records a video message in his office, 23 May 2012, United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – UN leader Ban Ki-moon on Monday demanded UN access to the surrounded Syrian city of Al-Heffa amid what he called a “dangerous intensification” of the conflict in the country.

Ban said in a statement released by his office that “intensive military operations” by government forces against Homs and firing from helicopters on other towns had caused heavy civilian casualties.

Residents and activists say government helicopter gunships have strafed rebel positions in Al-Heffa, a town of 30,000 near the border with Turkey, and tanks were parked on the outskirts.

Ban joined UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in demanding that unarmed military observers from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, UNSMIS, be let into Al-Heffa.

“The secretary general underlines the importance of unimpeded access by UNSMIS to Al-Heffa, amid reports of a build-up of government forces around the town,” said Ban’s statement. Annan said earlier that the monitors had to be let in “immediately”.

The UN chief also highlighted growing international fears that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are stepping up their onslaught on opposition fighters, who have also heightened operations.

“The secretary general expresses his deep concern at the dangerous intensification of armed violence across Syria over the past several days,” the UN statement added.

UNSMIS has reported “an increased level of armed confrontation between government and opposition forces,” Ban said.

“The government’s intensive military operations, including the shelling of Homs and reportedly other population centers, as well as firing from helicopters on Talbiseh and Rastan, are resulting in heavy civilian casualties and human rights violations.”

The UN mission has also seen planned and coordinated attacks on government forces and civilian infrastructure in multiple locations, the UN added. “The violence as a whole is intensifying amid the shifting tactics.”

Ban condemned the escalation which he said was by “all sides” and demanded new efforts to seek a negotiated settlement.

He also said all countries must put pressure on the warring sides “to pull back from the brink”.

Ban’s plea came amid growing signs that Annan’s six-point peace plan, which Assad agreed to follow, is collapsing.

A cessation of hostilities that officially started on April 12 has never held and massacres such as that in Houla on May 25 and Al-Kubeir last week have shocked international opinion. The United Nations says that more than 10,000 people have died in the conflict.

Annan has called on the international powers to lay down to Assad that he faces “clear consequences” for not implementing the peace plan.

Western nations are drawing up a UN Security Council resolution that could call for sanctions against Assad. Russia and China have insisted they will not allow a Libya-style military operation in Syria but have been more ambiguous about economic sanctions. – Agence France-Presse