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UN Council extends observer mission as funeral ceremony proceeds in Damascus

The UN Security Council votes to extend the mandate of its observer mission in Syria despite increasing violence that led to the death of 4 top Syrian officials last Wednesday

AFP and Reuters, Friday 20 Jul 2012
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, new Syrian defense minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij, second left, and Farouk Sharaa, Bashar Assad's vice president, center, attend the funeral processions of members of President Assad's inner circle, who were killed on Wednesday by a bomb, in Damascus, Syria, (Photo: AP).
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The UN Security Council on Friday unanimously voted to let the UN observer mission in Syria stay for a "final" 30 days, but remained bitterly divided over the conflict.

Russia had threatened to veto a Syria resolution for the second time in two days, but its ambassador Vitaly Churkin finally backed a resolution proposed by Britain.

The vote was taken only hours before the end of the 90-day mandate for the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). It also came with diplomatic tensions still high after Russia and China on Thursday blocked a western-backed resolution which would have threatened sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and the United States and European nations on the 15-nation council remain divided over whether the latest resolution meant the end of UNSMIS. The 300 unarmed military observers and 100 civilian staff halted operations on June 16 because of the worsening conflict.

Resolution 2059 says the council renews UNSMIS for "a final period of 30 days" and stresses the "increasingly dangerous security situation" in Syria.

But it adds that the council would be willing to look at a further extension if UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "reports and the Security Council confirms the cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a reduction in the level of violence sufficient to allow UNSMIS to implement its mandate."

Extension or withdrawal?

Western envoys stressed that they believe UNSMIS will now be closed down.

US ambassador Susan Rice said the resolution would allow the observers "to withdraw safely and orderly."

She added that it would be "unlikely" that the violence in Syria would ease enough to allow a continued UN presence and that the United States "strong preference" would be for the sanctions resolution.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said the resolution gave Assad's government "the final chance" however to keep its commitment to end violence.

"The Assad regime must take steps to establish an environment in which the UN mission can work safely and effectively by ceasing the use of heavy weapons and the brutal assaults of its security forces," Hague said in a statement.

The Russian ambassador insisted though that the phrase "final period of 30 days" in the text was not the death knell for UNSMIS and that its work should continue.

"This is not a resolution about withdrawal, it is a resolution about continuation of the activity of the mission," Churkin told reporters.

"We should not disorient the mission and the international community by describing it as a withdrawal," he said criticising Rice.

China, which had joined in Thursday's veto, also welcomed the new extension.

Russia had originally sought an unconditional extension of the mission.

Extending UNSMIS keeps alive part of the faltering peace mission of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who expressed "disappointment" that the council had failed to increase pressure on Assad.

UN leader Ban said Friday that the Security Council failure was "deeply disappointing" but added that he and Annan would "press ahead to try and end the violence and abuses in Syria. We cannot abandon our collective responsibility to enable a peaceful, democratic, Syrian-led transition."

UNSMIS head Major General Robert Mood has left Damascus, and the top UN military advisor General Babacar Gaye is to take interim charge of the mission.

Syrian activists say more than 17,000 people have died in the past 16 months and Damascus has now become a major battleground.

Assad misses funeral

A funeral ceremony was held on Friday for three of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's senior security officials who were killed in a bomb attack, but the Syrian leader stayed away from the sombre procession.

Assad was represented by Vice President Farouq al-Shara at the ceremony, shown on state television news.

The attack on a meeting of Assad's inner circle on Wednesday killed his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and veteran army general Hassan Turkmani.

The three men's coffins, draped in the Syrian flag, were driven in black hearses behind three huge wreaths of flowers carried by military officers towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Mount Qasioun, overlooking the capital.

Only senior military officers, government officials and close relatives were in attendance.

A fourth Syrian official, intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar, has died of wounds suffered in the Damascus bombing, the government said on Friday.

Assad has made only one appearance since the attack, adding to the sense of a challenge to his authority. On Thursday he was shown on television swearing in a new defence minister to replace Rajha.

After the funeral ceremony on Friday, Rajha's body was taken to a Damascus church where people from all sects prayed for the former defence minister, a Christian, before he was buried, witnesses said.

Shawkat's body was expected to be taken to his home village near the Mediterranean city of Tartus for burial, residents said.

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