BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria urged to give observers free hand

  • A large demonstration in the flashpoint central Syrian city of Homs, on December 27, 2011. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

DAMASCUS: Arab League observers headed Wednesday to more key protests hubs in Syria as world powers urged Damascus to give them full access as they try to reveal the truth about a crackdown on dissent.

More bloodshed was also reported as army defectors killed at least four Syrian soldiers in the southern province of Daraa, and a civilian was shot dead in Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Accusations that the regime was trying hide the facts from the monitors were punctuated by France, which claimed the team was not being allowed to see what was happening in the flashpoint city of Homs as repression continued there.

The monitors were due to visit Daraa -- cradle of more than nine months of anti-regime protests -- the northern provinces of Hama and Idlib, and around Damascus to pursue their investigations.

"As of Wednesday evening, and from Thursday at dawn, the observers will deploy in Idlib and Hama and in Daraa," mission chief General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi told AFP.

Dabi, a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer, said observers would also fan out 50-80 kilometres (30-50 miles) around Damascus.

The observers arrived in Syria at the weekend and on Tuesday visited the Homs, which has been besieged by government troops for several months.

Dabi said the visit to Homs had been "good", and that he was heading back there on Wednesday. He said more more observers would join the mission, which now numbers 66 monitors.

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the visit had been too brief and insufficiently revealing.

"A few Arab League observers were able to be briefly present in Homs yesterday. Their presence did not prevent the continuing of the bloody crackdown in this city, where large demonstrations were violently repressed, leaving about 10 dead," he said.

"The brevity of their visit did not allow them to understand the reality of the situation in Homs. The Arab League observers must be allowed to return without delay to this martyr city, to travel everywhere in it freely and to have the necessary contact with the public."

The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 that calls for the withdrawal of security forces from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

Valero said "the international community will be reassured when the violence has stopped, when the army had returned to barracks, when the political prisoners are freed and when foreign journalists will receive visas to go to Syria."

Activists say the army pulled back heavy armour from the restive Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amro ahead of Tuesday's visit by the monitors, accusing the regime of deception.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Syria to give the observers maximum freedom as they go about their mission.

"We constantly work with the Syrian leadership calling on it to fully cooperate with observers from the Arab League and to create work conditions that are as comfortable and free as possible," Lavrov said Wednesday.

The United States and Human Rights Watch warned Damascus was hindering the mission which started following weeks of prevarication from Syria.

HRW accused the Syrian authorities of having "transferred perhaps hundreds of detainees to off-limits military sites to hide them from Arab monitors.

"The Arab League should insist on full access to all Syrian sites used for detention, consistent with its agreement with the Syrian government," the watchdog said.

State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said "we obviously look to these individuals to be intrepid in their search for the truth of what's happening on the ground."

The United States "would ... demand that the Syrian authorities allow them full access to the Syrian people in order to carry out their mission."

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi has said the "mission has freedom of movement in line with the protocol" Syria signed with the Arab League. But the observers are banned from sensitive military sites.

On Wednesday, Syria freed 755 prisoners who had been involved in anti-regime unrest but have "no blood on their hands," state television said.

In November, authorities said they freed more than 4,300 detainees.

But there was more bloodshed Wednesday as mutinous soldiers ambushed a convoy killing at least four loyalist troops and wounding 12 in Daraa province, said the Observatory.

In Baba Amro a civilian was shot dead by security forces and another died of injuries sustained Tuesday, when Arab observers toured Homs.

On Tuesday, Syrian police used tear gas to disperse some 70,000 people who flooded the streets of Homs emboldened by the observers' visit and fired with live ammunition at some demonstrators, activists said.

The UN estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began in mid-March.

The government blames the violence on "armed terrorist" groups.

 
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