Syria said on Wednesday that a U.N. truce observer force would not need more than 250 monitors nor independent air support, challenging U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's assessment of what was needed for the operation.
The seven-day-old truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week, but in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, the army continues to attack the rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.
The U.N.'s Ban says more monitors are needed for credible supervision of the truce in a country the size of Syria in the 13th month of a conflict marked by extreme violence and over 10,000 deaths.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Beijing that the monitors should come from what he called neutral countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which have been more sympathetic to Assad's regime than the West and the Arab League states.
With the flashpoint cities in Syria scattered over several hundred kilometres, Ban said he has asked the European Union if it can supply helicopters and planes to make the proposed monitoring mission rapidly and independently mobile, but Moualem said Syria would supply air transport if necessary.
A political source in neighbouring Lebanon said Damascus has already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.
The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that might require 50,000 troops or more. Syria's powerful friends on the Security Council, Russia and China, have made clear they would block a U.N. mandate to use force. They are likely to back Damascus as the terms of the mission are thrashed out later this week.
Assad says Syria is under attack by foreign-backed terrorist and that for their own safety, the unarmed observers would have to coordinate every step of their operation with Syrian security, to protect them from armed gangs.
STILL NO PULLBACK
The rebel Free Syrian Army fighting to topple Assad says it will stop shooting if he keeps his pledge to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw tanks, heavy weapons and troops from urban areas, which critics say he clearly has not done since the truce took effect a week ago.
Army mortars have kept up their shelling of targets in Homs, the city at the heart of the revolt, and troops have swept towns and villages in raids to arrest suspected opponents of Assad. Activists say scores of people have been killed since the ceasefire officially came into force last Thursday.
Syria's official news agency SANA reported that four law enforcement members and a civilian were killed on Tuesday when an armed terrorist group threw a bomb at a bus in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city after the capital, Damascus.
It said terrorists were attacking and killing loyalist troops in their homes and kidnapping judges.
Internet video showed what anti-Assad activists said was renewed shelling of Homs shortly after dawn on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, reported explosions and heavy gunfire in the southern city of Deraa early on Wednesday. It confirmed the five killed by a bomb in Aleppo.
An advance party of a half a dozen U.N. peacekeepers in blue caps is in Damascus discussing the protocol for the proposed truce monitoring mission, which Ban says he will present to the Security Council later on Wednesday.
Its leader Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco said he was trying to set up contacts with Syrian rebels.
Ban said on Tuesday that the ceasefire was being generally observed, though there was still violence. He said the 250 observers Assad will accept would be not enough, considering the current situation and the vastness of the country.
Annan delivered a status report to Arab League ministers, who called on Assad to let the U.N. observers do their job.
We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.
Equipment for the mission, including vehicles, is already being transported to Syria via Beirut from a U.N. logistics base in Brindisi, Italy.
Diplomats say Annan's main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria's supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.
TIME TO ARM THE REBELS?
The mission must have Syrian consent, and Moualem said this commitment does not cancel out the right to self defence and appropriate response against any attack on government forces, infrastructure, civilians and private or state property.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria's powerful, Russian-armed forces, but other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war threatening the wider region.
Russia is also critical of Western and Arab states backing the Syrian opposition-in-exile in the Friends of Syria group.
France said it would host a foreign ministers meeting of the group on Thursday in Paris, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the fragile ceasefire.
Western sanctions have halved Syria's foreign reserves and should be stepped up to force Damascus to comply with the U.N.-backed peace plan, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told officials from 57 countries meeting in Paris.
(Additional reporting by Ayat Basma and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Will Waterman)