Saturday, December 31, 2011

Clashes erupt as protests spread across Syria

At least 32 reported killed in fighting between security forces and
demonstrators as thousands rally against Assad.

Dec. 30, 2011 Al Jazeera

At least 32 people have been reported killed during fresh protests against
the Syrian government, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded
streets across the country.

Activists said the deaths came on Friday as protesters, emboldened by the
presence of Arab League observers in the country, took to the streets
after noon Muslim prayers.

The UK-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory said more than half a million
people turned out for the largest demonstrations in months.

Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon,
said the demonstrations were taking place in 18 different provinces across

"One of the biggest demonstrations is near the capital, Damascus.
Activists have called on all residents to try and reach the centre of
their cities. In Damascus ... they are being met by security forces who
have used tear gas, according to many of the residents nearby," she said.

"We know that large demonstrations are also under way in the city of Hama,
[in] Homs, as well as [in] Idlib, where we've seen images of observers
themselves along with the demonstrators in the midst of it all."

Omar Hamza, a witness to the clashes between security forces and
demonstrators in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Friday, said government
forces shot at protesters who gathered at a mosque in the city.

"More than 100 people are injured right now," he told Al Jazeera. "It is a
very bad situation in Douma today."

Hesitant to speak

The violence comes as the Arab League observer team in Syria continues its
mission aimed at determining whether President Bashar al-Assad is
implementing a peace plan to end the violence.

Our correspondent said protesters on Friday were eager to show the
observers the situation on the ground and have their stories heard, but
some residents were more hesitant to speak.

"[The observers] are being followed by Syrian forces as part of the
agreement, so they are responsible for their safety. So some residents
don't feel they have the freedom to speak in front of Syrian authorities
in front of the observers," she said.

Syrian activists called on Thursday for the removal of the head of the
Arab League monitoring team in a new blow to the credibility of the

The opposition has condemned the observers' presence as a farce to enable
Assad to buy time and avoid more international censure and sanctions.

The 60 Arab League monitors are the first set of observers allowed in to
the country during the nine-month uprising.

Their remit is to ensure that the government is complying with the terms
of the regional bloc's plan to end the crackdown on protests.

Activists doubtful

Syrian activists, however, doubt Arab monitors are getting the access they
need to be able to give a fair assessment of the violence that the UN
estimates has left more than 5,000 people.

A member of the observer team told Al Jazeera the situation in Syria was
"very dangerous".

The official, who declined to be named, said there was constant shelling
in the city of Homs with some areas under control of the Free Syrian Army,
an umbrella group of armed anti-government fighters.
Observers plan to visit protest hubs in the country

The source said he believed the Arab League mission was certainly going to

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Homs, said that
monitors witnessed the crackdown on protests, but he was suspicious on how
they would report it.

"The observers saw a lot of violence in the city. They saw how security
forces shoot at protests. They also saw the bodies of dead people,"
Abdullah said.

"The monitors also saw destruction in the city. One of the observers asked
residents of Baba Amr neighbourhood ‘How can you live in this place?'"

International diplomats from China, Russia and the US have urged Syria's
government to facilitate the observer mission.

The Arab League plan, endorsed by Syria on November 2, calls for the
withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to
violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

The Syrian government says most of the violence has been perpetrated by
"armed terrorist groups" that are working against the government.

Emboldened by monitors, Syrians hold huge protests
By ZEINA KARAM | Associated Press – Dec. 30, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — In the largest protests Syria has seen in months, hundreds
of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in a display of defiance
to show an Arab League observer mission the strength of the opposition

Despite the monitors' presence in the country, activists said Syrian
forces loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 22 people, most of
them shot during the anti-government demonstrations.

In a further attempt to appeal to the monitors, dissident troops who have
broken away from the Syrian army said they have halted attacks on regime
forces to reinforce the activists' contention that the uprising against
Assad is a peaceful movement.

While opposition activists are deeply skeptical of the observer mission,
the outpouring of demonstrators across Syria underscores their wish to
make their case to the foreign monitors and take advantage of the small
measure of safety they feel they brought with them.

The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first that Syria has allowed
into the country during the uprising, which began in March. They are
supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League's plan to
end Assad's crackdown on dissent. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people
have died as the government has sought to crush the revolt.

Friday's crowds were largest in Idlib and Hama provinces, with about
250,000 people turning out in each area, according to an activist and
eyewitness who asked to be identified only as Manhal because he feared
government reprisal. Other big rallies were held in Homs and Daraa
provinces and the Damascus suburb of Douma, according to Rami Abdul-Raham,
who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The crowd estimates could not be independently confirmed because Syria has
banned most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the
local media.

Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident and human rights
defender, said the observers' presence has emboldened protesters to take
to the streets in huge numbers.

"Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive
psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests — a
basic condition of the Arab League peace plan," he told The Associated

The observers began their mission Tuesday in Homs, often referred to by
many Syrians as the "Capital of the Revolution." Since then, they have
fanned out in small groups across Syrian provinces, including the restive
Idlib province in the north, Hama in the center and the southern province
of Daraa, where the revolt began.

The orange-jacketed observers have been seen taking pictures of the
destruction, visiting families of victims of the crackdown, and taking

On Friday, they were within "hearing distance" from where troops opened
fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma,
activist Salim al-Omar said. They later visited the wounded in hospital,
he added.

Despite questions about the human rights record of the man leading the
monitors, tens of thousands have turned out this week in cities and
neighborhoods where they were expected to visit.

The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces,
apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo's
Tahrir Square. In general, activists say, security forces have launched
attacks when observers were not present. But there have been some reports
of firing on protesters while monitors were nearby.

Omar Shaker, an activist and resident of the battered neighborhood of Baba
Amr in Homs, said the observers were "laughable," often walking around
with outdated cameras and without pens.

"Still, the bombardment and killings have decreased here in their
presence. We see them as a kind of human shields, that's all," he said.

Shaker said around 7,000 protested Friday in Baba Amr — the first
demonstration in the besieged district in more than a week.

"People are feeling optimistic," he said. "We've been protesting and dying
for 10 months. We have the feeling that the worst is over and the end is
near," he added.

In Douma, up to 100,000 people protested Friday. Amateur videos posted on
the Internet by activists showed demonstrators carrying away a bleeding
comrade after being hit by a gas canister.

"Look, Arab League, look!" the cameraman is heard shouting. The
British-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the
ground, said the regime used nail bombs against protesters in Douma. The
report was confirmed by Douma activist al-Omar.

In another video, a huge crowd packed a main street in Homs, singing
anti-Assad songs and dancing in unison. The crowd sang, "We will die in
freedom," to the festive beat of a drum, as the unidentified cameraman
proclaimed, "For months we didn't hear anything on Friday" because of the
crackdown. "But because of the observer committee, they didn't fire a
single bullet."

"Victory is close, god willing," he said.

Thousands turned out in the city of Idlib to welcome the observers,
filling a large square, waving olive branches and flags, and chanting,
"The people want the fall of Bashar."

But the ongoing violence in Syria, and questions about the human rights
record of the head of the Arab League monitors, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed
Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, are reinforcing the opposition's view that Syria's
limited cooperation with the observers is merely a ploy by Assad to buy
time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.

One of Assad's few remaining allies, Russia, voiced its approval of the
observer mission so far, calling the situation "reassuring."

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said at least
130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the
Arab League observers began their one-month mission.

On Friday, activists said security forces fired on protesters in Daraa,
Hama, Idlib and Douma. In the central city of Homs, six people who were
reported missing a day earlier were confirmed dead.

The Observatory reported 22 people were killed nationwide, most of them
shot while protesting. The Local Coordination Committees activist network
reported 32 were killed. The differing death tolls could not be
immediately reconciled.

The Arab League plan, which Syria agreed to Dec. 19, demands that the
government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start
talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists
into the country. It also calls for the release of all political

Pro-Assad groups turned out for rallies in Damascus and several other
cities, waving portraits of the president, in an apparent bid to show that
the regime has popular support.

Also Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it has stopped its offensive
against government targets since the observers arrived, in a bid to avoid
fueling government claims that it is facing armed "terrorists" rather than
peaceful protesters.

"We stopped to show respect to Arab brothers, to prove that there are no
armed gangs in Syria, and for the monitors to be able to go wherever they
want," breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, leader of the FSA, told the
AP by telephone from his base in Turkey.

"We only defend ourselves now. This is our right and the right of every
human being," he said, adding that his group will resume attacks after the
observers leave.

The Free Syrian Army says it has about 15,000 army defectors. The group
has claimed responsibility for attacks on government installations that
have killed scores of soldiers and members of the security forces.

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