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U.N. to send monitors to Syria as violence tests brittle truce

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to dispatch a first team of monitors to Syria to shore up a brittle cease-fire as escalating fighting between regime and rebel forces threatened the truce at the heart of special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

Syrian troops shelled residential neighborhoods and rebel gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades in the central city of Homs in the first use of heavy weapons since the cease-fire took effect Thursday. Loud booms echoed across the city as smoke rose above badly damaged apartment blocks. In other parts of Syria, both sides described deadly shootings and ambushes, and at least 14 people were reported killed.

Saturday's resolution gave the 15-nation Security Council its first united front since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began 13 months ago. It called for immediate deployment of up to 30 monitors, to be followed by a larger contingent of up to 250 once the situation has stabilized.

Emphasizing that both sides must halt the violence that has killed more than 9,000, the council called on Syria to pull soldiers and heavy weapons out of towns and cities -- a truce provision Assad's regime has ignored. It also demanded urgent compliance with Annan's six-point plan intended to lead to talks between the regime and the opposition on Syria's political future.

The plan is widely seen as the only remaining chance for diplomacy, mainly because it has the backing of Syrian allies Russia and China, which have shielded Assad from Security Council condemnation in the past.

Annan said in Geneva that he was "very relieved and happy" about the council vote.

France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, said he hoped the vote "will open the way to a cessation of brutal violence, and we hope that we'll be able to say to the Syrian people that the time of indiscriminate violence is finally behind it." The latest attacks in Homs "lead to some doubts about the reality of the commitment of the Syrian regime," he added.

Western powers and opposition leaders remain skeptical about Assad's willingness to ease his tight grip on the country, ruled by his family for four decades. The regime appears to have complied with parts of the Annan plan, while flouting others.

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi has said an advance team of about a dozen observers was on standby to fly to Syria once the Security Council approved the mission and could quickly be increased to 30.

Italy, meanwhile, said Saturday it is making an air force plane available at U.N. request to transport equipment and vehicles for the observers.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said at least 10 civilians were killed by regime forces Saturday, while the grass-roots Local Coordination Committees put the death toll on the opposition side at 20. The toll was significantly lower than before the truce.