Syria's 4-day-old cease-fire appeared to be quickly eroding Sunday, with regime forces firing dozens of tank shells and mortar rounds at neighborhoods in the opposition stronghold of Homs, hours before the arrival of a first team of U.N. truce monitors.
Even though the overall level of violence has dropped, escalating regime attacks over the weekend raised new doubts about President Bashar Assad's commitment to a plan by special envoy Kofi Annan to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on Syria's political future.
Assad accepted the truce deal at the prodding of his main ally, Russia, but his compliance has been limited. He has halted shelling of rebel-held neighborhoods, with the exception of Homs, but ignored calls to pull troops out of urban centers, apparently for fear of losing control over a country his family has ruled for four decades. Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks, including shooting ambushes.
The international community hopes U.N. observers will be able to stabilize the cease-fire, which formally took effect Thursday. A six-member advance team of U.N. observers headed to Damascus on Sunday, a day after a unanimous U.N. Security Council approved such a mission. A larger team of 250 observers requires more negotiations between the U.N. and the Syrian government next week.
With Assad seen as a reluctant participant in Annan's plan, the observers' success will depend on how much access they can negotiate in Syria and how quickly the team can grow to a full contingent, analysts said. The failure of an Arab League observer mission earlier this year was blamed in part on regime restrictions imposed on the visitors.
However, a reassuring presence of monitors could also enable Syria's opposition to return to staging mass marches, common in the early days of the anti-Assad uprising that erupted in March 2011. In response to a violent regime crackdown on such protests, the turnout for weekly anti-regime marches has decreased.
Homs, Syria's third-largest city, was the main flashpoint of violence again Sunday. The city had been battered by daily regime shelling for three weeks before the cease-fire, and shelling resumed Friday, less than 48 hours after the truce took effect, residents said.
"What cease-fire? There's an explosion every five to six minutes," a Homs-based activist, identified only as Yazan, said via Skype.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two men and a woman were killed by shelling in Homs on Sunday, and that three more bodies were found in the city. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the group, said Sunday's shelling was more intense than the attacks of the previous day.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the death toll in Homs at 11. It said the day started with a barrage of shells that fell at the rate of six each minute, shaking the neighborhood of Khaldiyeh for the second consecutive day.
Overall, the Observatory reported the deaths of 10 civilians Sunday, including the three killed in Homs, a shooting death near Damascus and the discovery of six bodies. The LCC put the death toll on the opposition side at 23. Since the start of the cease-fire, the daily death toll has been significantly lower than in the preceding weeks, when dozens were reported killed every day.