U.N. observer mission in Syria ends, violence continues

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Story highlights

  • At least 170 are killed across Syria on Sunday, an opposition group says
  • A Jordanian child is hurt as Syrian shells land in Jordan, Jordanian state news reports
  • The U.N. vows to maintain a presence in Syria after its 300 observers leave
  • Syria's vice president is absent from Eid prayers in Damascus; rebels say he's defected

The mandate of the U.N. observer mission in Syria ended Sunday, with the country no closer to a lasting peace than when monitors arrived four months ago.

Even after the 300 observers leave, the United Nations will maintain a presence in the war-torn country in the form of a new liaison office supporting "efforts for a political solution."

"We will continue the search to move from violence to dialogue," said the mission's leader, Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye of Senegal.

The U.N. monitoring mission itself clearly did not go as hoped. International observers first arrived in Syria in April, on the heels of a cease-fire ostensibly agreed upon by the government and rebels. But the cease-fire never took hold, and violence soon surged.

Over the past month, opposition activists have reported upward of 150 deaths a day. That violence continued Sunday, when much of the country was celebrating Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of fasting during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month.

At least 170 people were killed Sunday throughout the nation, the opposition Local Coordination Committees reported.

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This figure includes 51 killed in the province of Daraa, among them 20 new charred bodies discovered in Hirak and a boy and his mother killed by "fierce shelling" in Daraa al-Balad. Government forces "executed" 14 people in that province hours after they were detained, the LCC said.

    The same group reported another 51 deaths in and around Damascus, among them a number of people killed by "indiscriminate mortar shelling" in Theyabeih. As dusk settled in Sunday, residents of another Damascus suburb, Housh Arab, were in the dark because of similar shelling, the LCC said.

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    Explosions and "intense gunfire from heavy machine guns" were also heard Sunday night in the west-central city of Hama, according to the LCC. And five people reportedly died when two residential buildings collapsed in the Aleppo neighborhood of Sakhour because of shelling.

    Earlier in the day, clashes erupted between government and rebel fighters when regime forces tried to take over the Damascus suburb of al Qadm, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    The bloodshed may not be confined to Syria.

    A child in Jordan was wounded Sunday by shrapnel from shells fired from Syria, Jordanian government spokesman Samih Maaytah said, according to that nation's official PETRA news agency. Gunfire also went into Jordanian territory as Syrian forces and rebel fighters clashed nearby, he added.

    Afterward, Jordan's government called in Syria's ambassador and handed him an official letter of protest, according to Maaytah.

    Meanwhile, state-run TV aired footage of Eid prayers in Damascus attended by Syrian leaders, including President Bashar al-Assad.

    Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, who rebels say has defected from the regime, was noticeably absent from the service.

    Louai Miqdad, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said Saturday that al-Sharaa has fled the regime. Opposition fighters were trying to get the vice president -- who Miqdad said left Damascus a week ago, heading to his home province of Daraa -- across the border into Jordan, despite government attacks.

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    Syrian state-run TV did not explicitly say if al-Sharaa had defected, but said the vice president's office issued a statement saying al-Sharaa "has never at any moment thought of leaving the homeland to whatever direction."

    As of Sunday, al-Sharaa's location was not known.

    If al-Sharaa did defect, it would mark the highest-level departure from al-Assad's regime yet.

    Such a defection would follow a stream of resignations by Syrian officials in recent weeks, including Republican Guard Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas and Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. Like al-Sharaa, the men are Sunni Muslims who held top posts in a government dominated by the country's Alawite minority.

    Observers view al-Sharaa's power and influence as more significant than that of the prime minister, who only served in his post for weeks.

    Al-Sharaa has more clout as a prominent member of the regime's old guard who served as foreign minister under al-Assad and his late father, Hafez, for more than 20 years.

    Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said al-Sharaa may have defected "because the battle now has become so sectarian," with an opposition dominated by Sunnis fighting against pro-regime Alawites.

    Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the LCC opposition network, said al-Sharaa's defection could suggest "the regime is collapsing very quickly."

    "If confirmed, (this) represents yet another high-level official who sees that the al-Assad regime is a sinking ship," she said. "I expect to see additional defections in both the military and civilian sectors in the coming days."

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