35 Dead as 70,000 Rally in Homs with Arab Monitors Arrival

| 28.12,11. 12:31 PM |


35 Dead as 70,000 Rally in Homs with Arab Monitors Arrival


Some 70,000 Syrians took to the streets of Homs as Arab League observers visited the protest hub on Tuesday and activists said security forces shot dead 35 people across the country.

"More than 70,000 demonstrators tried to enter al-Saa square in the center of the city of Homs, while the security agents used tear gas to disperse them," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At the same time, some demonstrators were fired on with live ammunition as they made their way to the square, and four were wounded, one seriously.

The protest comes as Arab League observers visited the flashpoint central city to monitor a deal to end a deadly nine-month crackdown on anti-regime protests.

On its Facebook page, the Observatory said separate demonstrations were held elsewhere in the city, aimed at "exposing the ill practices and crimes of the regime" to the visiting Arab League delegation.

Following the killings of civilians in Baba Amr on Monday, residents held a funeral in the nearby Kefer Ayia for some of those who died, but were fired on by security services, according to the Observatory.

Meanwhile, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground said security forces shot dead 14 people in Homs, three at Damascus University, four in the southern province of Daraa, four in Reef Damascus, three in the central province of Hama, four in the northwestern province of Idlib, two in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour and a person in the coastal city of Latakia.

Activists said the military pulled its tanks back from one district ahead of the Arab League team's arrival, only to hide them inside government zones from where they could be redeployed within minutes.

The demonstrators appeared to have been emboldened by the presence of a team of Arab League observers headed by veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi.

"Till now, they have been very cooperative," Dabi told Agence France Presse by telephone before holding talks with governor Ghassan Abdel Al.

A video posted by the Observatory on YouTube showed residents of Baba Amr pleading with Dabi to go in and see the devastation.

Syria's pro-regime Dunia television reported that the observers also visited the Bab Sebaa neighborhood of Homs, where they "assessed the damage carried out by terrorist groups."

"They also met with relatives of martyrs and a person who had been abducted" by these groups, said Dunia, adding that many people decried the "conspiracy against Syria" to the monitors.

The observers are also due to travel to two other protest hubs -- the central city of Hama and Idlib in the northwest, close to the border with Turkey, the television added, without giving a timetable.

Ahead of the observers' arrival in Homs, the army pulled back heavy armor from the Baba Amr neighborhood of the city, scene of much of the violence, the Observatory said.

Eleven tanks pulled out around 7:00 am (0500 GMT), its chairman, Rami Abdul Rahman, told AFP.

The Observatory added, however, that armored military vehicles including tanks and troop carriers had "repositioned inside the government centers in Baba Amr, al-Inshaatt and Brazil Street in Homs."

It cited an activist as saying on its Facebook page that "it only takes over five minutes" for the vehicles to return.

The Observatory said the withdrawal was part of the regime's "deception" and showed its attempt to "deny the crystal clear fact" that Syrians were trying to "regain power, freedom and dignity" in a popular revolt.

The observer 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.

Since signing the deal, the Syrian regime has been accused of intensifying a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests, which have shown no signs of abating since they erupted in mid-March.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have lost their lives.

The bloodshed in Homs has sparked a mounting international outcry and opposition calls for foreign intervention.

The leader of opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, urged U.N. and Arab League intervention "to put an end to this tragedy," and called on the U.N. Security Council to "adopt the Arab League's plan and ensure that it is applied."

"It is better if the U.N. Security Council takes this (Arab League) plan, adopts and provides the means for its application," Ghalioun said. "That would give it more force."

The Arab "plan to defuse the crisis is a good plan, but I do not believe the Arab League really has the means" to enforce it, he said.

"The observers are working in conditions that the Arab League has described as not being good ... I think we have not properly negotiated the working conditions of the observers," Ghalioun added.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said the observer "mission has freedom of movement in line with the protocol" Syria signed with the Arab League.

Under that deal, the observers are banned from sensitive military sites.

The Observatory charged that the authorities had changed road signs in Idlib province to confuse the observers, and urged them to contact human rights activists on the ground.

Opposition groups have said the observers must stop their work if they are blocked by the authorities from traveling to places like Homs.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the observers to vindicate his government's contention that "armed terrorists" are behind the violence.

Western governments and human rights watchdogs blame Assad's regime for the bloodshed.

Opposition leaders charge that Syria agreed to the mission after weeks of prevarication in a "ploy" to head off a threat by the 22-member League to go to the U.N. Security Council over the crackdown.

The observers will eventually number between 150 and 200, Arab League officials say.


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