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UN observers visit suburbs of Syrian capital Damascus amid shaky cease-fire
BEIRUT (AP) ' United Nations observers monitoring Syria's shaky cease-fire visited a string of rebellious Damascus suburbs Monday, while the European Union looked set to levy new sanctions to increase the pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime.
The moves are part of international efforts to bring halt to the 13-month-old Syrian crisis that the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people.
The U.N. has sent an advance team of eight observers to Syria as part of international envoy Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan to end the fighting between Assad's forces and those seeking to overthrow his regime. More monitors are due to arrive in the coming days, and the U.N. has authorized a mission of 300 total observers, though it remains unclear when the full contingent will arrive.
Syrian state TV said Monday the observer team visited the mountain town of Zabadani, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) northwest of the capital Damascus, but gave no further details. A spokesman for the team, Neeraj Singh, said they were also visiting the suburbs of Douma and Harasta.
All three areas have seen frequent anti-government protests and resulting crackdowns. Government troops shelled Douma on Sunday, activists said.
Zabadani-based activist Fares Mohammed said the U.N. team was in town for about 30 minutes, talked to a few people, saw some buildings damaged in government attacks and left.
He said he was disappointed with the visit. Tanks that had been posted in the town center withdrew in the hours before the visit to an area less than one mile (kilometer) away, he said, and the observers declined offers by residents to show them the place.
"Those tanks can be back in the city in two minutes," he said.
Rebels seized control of Zabadani in January of this year, successfully repelling regime assaults before losing the town again in February. The town is believed to be a key transit point for weapons and funding to the Syrian-allied Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.
Neither the U.N. team nor the Syrian government commented on the visit.
Many Syrians, as well as the Western powers, have voiced skepticism about Assad's willingness to abide by the cease-fire plan for ending the bloodshed and launching talks between the regime and the opposition. They say the Syrian leader is largely paying lip service to the truce since full compliance ' including withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from populated areas and allowing peaceful demonstrations ' could quickly sweep him from power.
Since the cease-fire went into affect on April 12, regime forces have continued to shell rebellious areas and rebels have attacked regime checkpoints and military convoys.
Violence appeared to be have dropped Monday, however, even in the opposition stronghold of Homs, which has been the hardest-hit target of the regime's assaults. Two U.N. observers have remained in the city, and activists have reported relatively little violence there in recent days ' after daily shelling for months before the observers' arrival.
"There is a big difference," said activist Abu Mohammed Ibrahim via Skype. "Before, we were getting hit with rockets and mortars. Now there are snipers and some gunfire, but only medium weapons. Before they fired all they had at us."
Ibrahim said local rebels were observing the cease-fire, avoiding military checkpoints and streets where the government had posted snipers.
Syria's state news service said the U.N. monitors met Monday with residents in Homs' northwestern Waer neighborhood.
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests calling for his ouster. The regime responded with a withering crackdown, which has prompted may in the opposition to take up arms to fight government troops.
The Syrian state news agency said Monday that "terrorists" had killed a doctor in the country's south, two military officers in the central province of Hama and two others in the south.
The Syrian government blames the uprising on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.
In Luxembourg Monday, diplomats said the European Union would pass its 14th set of sanctions against Syria, this time banning "luxury goods" and products that can be used against protesters.
Two diplomats said the E.U.'s 27 foreign ministers will formally approve the new set of sanctions during a meeting Monday in Luxembourg. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet formally taken.
E.U. experts will work out later precisely which goods will be included in the embargo. One of the diplomats said they could include anything from vehicles to fertilizers and other chemicals.
The only precedent for the luxury ban is one imposed by the E.U. in 2007 on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which included caviar and truffles, high-quality wines and spirits, fashion accessories, perfumes and purebred horses.
Officials said this could serve as a model for the same measures against Syria. Such a ban aims at the wealthy business class that has largely stood by Bashar.
"We need to continue to intensify pressure on the Assad regime," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "They are not in complete compliance with the cease-fire provisions of the Annan plan."
Associated Press writer Slobodan Leckic in Luxembourg contributed reporting.