U.N. observers suspended their patrols in Syria on Saturday due to a recent spike in violence, the strongest sign yet that an international peace plan was unraveling despite months of diplomatic efforts to prevent the country from plunging into civil war.
The U.N. observers have been the only working part of a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which the international community sees as its sole hope to stop the bloodshed.
The plan called for the foreign monitors to check compliance with a cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect April 12, but they have become the most independent witnesses to the carnage on both sides as government and rebel forces have largely ignored the truce.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the U.N. mission chief, said intensifying clashes over the past 10 days were "posing significant risks" to the 300 unarmed observers spread out across the country and impeding their ability to carry out their mandate.
The observers will not leave the country, but they will remain in place and cease patrols, Mood said, adding that the suspension would be reviewed on a daily basis. Teams have been stationed in some of Syria's most dangerous cities, including Homs and Hama.
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions, is increasing the losses on both sides," Mood said.
The decision came after weeks of escalating attacks, including reports of several mass killings.
Underscoring the dangers, activists reported at least 50 people killed Saturday in clashes and shelling in several Syrian cities.
The peace plan's near-collapse has increased pressure on the international community, including President Bashar Assad's staunch allies Russia and China, to find another solution. But there has been little appetite for the type of military intervention that helped oust Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions have failed to stop the bloodshed.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, said it had informed Mood that it understood the U.N. observers' decision and blamed rebels for the escalation in fighting.
"Armed terrorist groups have conducted, since the signing of the Annan plan, an increase in criminal operations that have targeted, many times, the observers and threatened their lives," the Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Damascus frequently refers to rebels as "terrorists" instead of Syrians seeking reforms.
The opposition has blamed the regime for the attacks near the observers.
Earlier this month, a U.N. convoy was blocked and attacked with stones, metal rods and gunfire by an angry crowd as it was heading to the town of Haffa in the coastal Latakia region, where troops had been battling rebels for a week.
The observers managed to enter only after government troops had seized the area back from the rebels.
On May 15, a roadside bomb damaged the observers' vehicles shortly after they met with Syrian rebels in the northern town of Khan Sheikoun. A week earlier, a roadside bomb struck a Syrian military truck in the south of the country just seconds after Mood drove by in a convoy.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the Obama administration was now consulting with allies about "next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition."