BEIRUT: Arab League monitors spent a second day in the Syrian city of Homs Wednesday gathering accounts about the government’s crackdown on dissent as troops in nearby Hama opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters and killed at least six, according to activists.
Though President Bashar Assad’s regime has made some concessions to the observers, including the release of nearly 800 prisoners Wednesday, the military at the same time is pressing ahead with a violent campaign to put down mostly peaceful protests. Activists said at least 39 people have been killed in the two days since the monitors began work.
The continuing violence – and comments by an Arab League official praising Syrian cooperation – have fueled concerns by the Syrian opposition that the Arab League mission is a farce and a distraction from the ongoing killings.
“This mission has absolutely no mandate, no authority, no teeth,” said Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition group. “The regime does not feel obliged to even bring down the number of casualties a day,” he told the Associated Press.
The 60 Arab League monitors – the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising – are supposed to be ensuring the regime is complying with terms of a plan to end the crackdown on protests. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since March.
The plan demands the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It calls for the release of all political prisoners.
The government released 755 prisoners following a report by Human Rights Watch late Tuesday accusing authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees from the monitors. It was the second concession in two days to the Arab League.
The army Monday pulled some of its troops back from the city of Homs after bombarding it for days and killing scores of people. It allowed the monitors to visit and as they came, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets, chanting calls for the execution of Assad.
In the week after signing on to the Arab League plan on Dec. 19, the regime stepped up the crackdown and killed hundreds of people. The opposition suspects that Assad is only trying to buy time and forestall more international sanctions and condemnation.
The Arab observers kicked off their one month mission with a visit Tuesday to the central city of Homs, a city at the heart of the uprising. Several from the team of 12 stayed in the city overnight, and the team continued work there Wednesday. There was no word on whether other teams went to different cities.
According to officials and activists, the monitors went to several districts including trouble spots in Bab Amro, Bab Sbaa and Inshaat. Amateur video posted on the Internet showed the head of the team, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ahmad Mustafa al-Dabi, walking in Baba Amr and stopping to talk to people.
In one video, he is seen talking to a man who accuses the regime of killing his 64-year-old brother, a former official of Assad’s ruling Baath party, and his wife, and then blaming it on armed gangs.
“Your excellency, they are killing influential people to draw a violent reaction from people,” he tells Dabi.
Some amateur video showed the orange-jacketed observers in a white car, surrounded by people shouting for Assad’s downfall and apparently objecting to the presence of a Syrian military escort in the car with them.
Other video showed the monitors visiting women and children who purportedly lost family members in recent violence.
There were no reports of firing on protesters in Homs during the observers visit Wednesday. Troops did open fire on the crowds Tuesday.
Images obtained by the AP from Homs in the days leading up to the monitors’ visit show army defectors inside a bombed out building, firing machine guns through gaping holes in an outer wall. In another, a huge crowd fills the street for a nighttime demonstration behind a giant banner of the uprising’s revolutionary flag. A row of women at the front are wearing the flags and a large banner overhead reads: “All the doors are closed except your door, God.”
There are also graphic images of wounded civilians lying on a floor in pools of blood, and being treated with crude medical equipment. Another shows an alleyway dotted with puddles of fresh blood. At a protest on Dec. 21, a banner reads: “To the Arab League: Your initiative cannot protect us from death.” The images testify to the intensity of the opposition to Assad that brought on a brutal offensive against Homs from Friday until the monitors arrived Tuesday morning. For days, government forces relentlessly shelled the city and killed scores.
The monitors are expected Thursday to visit Hama, Idlib and Daraa – all centers of the uprising.
In Hama, several thousand protesters were trying to reach the city’s main Assi square to stage a sit-in amid a heavy security presence when troops opened fire with bullets and tear gas to disperse them, activists said.
Hama-based activist Saleh Abu Kamel told the Associated Press he had the names of six people who were killed and many other wounded in the shooting. The number could not be immediately confirmed.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees confirmed the protests and the shooting, giving conflicting casualty figures.
Violence erupted in several other parts of the country. Activists reported two deaths in the Bab Amro district of Homs, one who was shot by a sniper and another who died from wounds sustained a day earlier. Despite the ongoing crackdown, an Arab League official said cooperation by Syrian authorities with the monitors was “reassuring.”