Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mass protests in Homs as Arab monitors visit

Estimated 70,000 demonstrate in Syria's protest hub, with Arab League
observers expected to return on Wednesday.

Dec. 27, 2011 Al Jazeera

Syrian government forces have reportedly fired tear gas and live rounds at
thousands of protesters in Homs, as Arab League monitors finished their
first day of observation in the city that has been the centre of the
anti-government protest movement.

Arab League peace monitors are on a mission to assess whether Syria has
halted its nine-month crackdown on protests against President Bashar

The delegation met the governor and toured Homs on Tuesday. They will
continue touring the area on Wednesday, the Syrian television channel
Dunia said.

"I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to
Homs," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, head of the mission, told the
Reuters news agency. "The team is staying in Homs. Today was very good and
all sides were responsive".

This came as activist groups said 35 people had been killed across the
country on Tuesday. Activists earlier said dozens of people were killed in
Homs on Monday.

The 50 observers, who arrived in Syria on Monday, are split into five
teams of 10, according to Reuters.

Teams are also visiting Damascus, Hama and Idlib.

Mass protests

Activists, meanwhile, reported that some 70,000 protesters have tried to
march to the centre of Homs, and that security forces have been firing
tear gas in an attempt to break up the protests.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said a group was gathering
in Khalidiya, one of the four parts of Homs where there has been heavy
bloodshed as armed rebels fight security forces using tanks.

Footage posted online showed big crowds of anti-government protesters in
the neighbourhoods of Bab Sbaa and Khaldiyeh and a funeral march in Ghouta
area. Pro-Assad rallies were also reported in two other neighbourhoods.

Witnesses said the army pulled back tanks from Bab Amr, a flashpoint
neighbourhood in the city, ahead of the observers' arrival on Tuesday.
However, some activists said tanks had just been repositioned in other
areas of the city.

Also in Homs province on Tuesday, the SANA state news agency reported that
saboteurs blew up a gas pipeline in the area.

The latest explosion, blamed on "terrorists", is the fifth reported attack
on energy infrastructure since the outbreak of Syria's unprecedented
pro-reform protest movement in mid-March.

Arab monitors

Residents of Bab Amr try to talk to Arab League observers

Activists uploaded video footage onto the internet, which reportedly shows
residents of Bab Amr trying to speak to the Arab monitors, although Al
Jazeera cannot independently verify this.

"It shows a group of people from the Bab Amr neighbourhood having a
conversation with what we believe are members of the Arab League observer
mission," said Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Turkish town
of Antakya, near the border with Syria.

"They seem very desperate, and they seem as if the Arab League observers
are really their last hope. You hear the man telling them 'Come to my
neighbourhood, come to my street, people here are dying, there are snipers
on rooftops, we are not able to walk in the street'."

Khodr continued: "He repeatedly stresses the fact that 'We are unarmed, we
are unarmed civilians.'. Now this is what the protesters want the Arab
League to see, that they are not responsible for the violence but that
they have been victims of the violence," Khodr said.

Bab Amr has seen some of the heaviest fighting in recent months. A
resident also told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that people there were being
prevented from meeting with Arab League observers.

"More than 10,000 people here in Bab Amr have gone out to demonstrate so
they [security forces] are shooting randomly to prevent them from seeing
anyone," the resident said.

"There is a lot of tanks here in Bab Amr, but they are trying to hide
them... We can't see them [Arab League observers], we can't speak with
them, they are walking with the security forces. We can't reach them and
contact them."

'Element of surprise'

During their mission, the observer teams will use government transport,
according to their top official, General al-Dabi. Delegates insist the
mission will nevertheless be able to go wherever it chooses with no

"Our Syrian brothers are co-operating very well and without any
restrictions so far," al-Dabi told the Reuters news agency.

Other delegates said they expected to be able to "move freely between
hospital, prisons and detention centres all over Syria".

"The element of surprise will be present," Mohamed Salem al-Kaaby, a
monitor from the United Arab Emirates, said.

"We will inform the Syrian side the areas we will visit on the same day so
that there will be no room to direct monitors or change realities on the
ground by either side."

The observers' mission is part of a plan seeking to put an end to the
government's crackdown, which the United Nations estimates to have killed
more than 5,000 people since March.

Mass anti-Assad protest in Homs as monitors visit

By Mariam Karouny and Erika Solomon | Reuters – Dec. 27, 2011

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets
in the flashpoint city of Homs to rally against President Bashar al-Assad
and plead for newly-arrived Arab peace monitors to bear witness to their

About 70,000 protesters marched towards the city centre on Tuesday where
security forces fired at them and lobbed teargas, activists said.

The military withdrew some tanks, in what the activists called a ploy to
persuade the monitors that the city was calm. Footage on the Internet
showed monitors confronted by residents as gunfire crackled around them.

The Arab League observers, who arrived in the country on Monday, want to
determine if Assad is keeping his promise to implement a peace plan to end
his military crackdown on nine months of popular revolt.

The monitors were due to return on Wednesday to Homs where crowds have
pleaded for them to visit the most violent neighborhoods. Activists say
tanks ran amok and scores of people have been killed in recent days.

Live broadcasts by Al Jazeera television showed tens of thousands of
protesters gathered on Tuesday in the Khalidiya district - one of those
yet to be visited by monitors - shouting and whistling and waving white

One activist held up a sign to the camera that read: "We are afraid when
the monitors leave they will kill and bury us."

The observers' visit is the first international intervention on the ground
in the country since the uprising began, and protesters hope what they
witness will prompt world powers to take more decisive action against

The Syrian leader says he is fighting an insurgency by armed terrorists,
and that most of the violence has been aimed at the security forces.
International journalists are mostly barred from Syria, making it
difficult to confirm accounts.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group,
said security forces killed 15 people across the country on Tuesday, six
of them in Homs. An activist network said 34 had been killed on Monday.

Some protesters shouted "We want international protection" in a video
posted on YouTube apparently showing an encounter with the monitors on
Tuesday. Some residents argued and pleaded with them to go further into
the Baba Amr quarter, where clashes have been especially fierce.

There was the sound of gunfire after a resident yelled at one monitor to
repeat what he had just told his headquarters.

"You were telling the head of the mission that you cannot cross to the
second street because of the gunfire. Why don't you say it to us?" the man
shouted, grabbing the unidentified monitor by his jacket.

Gunshots crackled nearby as two monitors and two men wearing orange vests
stood amid a crowd of residents, one begging the team to "come and see;
they are slaughtering us, I swear."

The head of mission said the first visit was "very good."

"I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to
Homs," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi said. "The team is staying in Homs.
Today was very good and all sides were responsive."

Activist reports just before the monitors arrived on Tuesday said up to a
dozen tanks were seen leaving Baba Amr and others were being hidden to
fashion an impression of relative normality in the city while observers
were around.

"My house is on the eastern entrance of Baba Amr. I saw at least six tanks
leave the neighborhood at around 8 in the morning (0600 GMT)," activist
Mohamed Saleh told Reuters by telephone. "I do not know if more remain in
the area."

Al Jazeera's footage showed thousands of Syrians in the square in
Khalidiya, one of four districts where there has been bloodshed as rebels
fight security forces using tanks.

They were whistling and shouting and waving flags, playing music over
loudspeakers and clapping.

The protesters shouted "We have no one but God" and "Down with the
regime." An activist named Tamir told Reuters they planned to hold a
sit-in in the square.

"We tried to start a march down to the main market but the organizers told
us to stop, it's too dangerous. No one dares go down to the main streets.
So we will stay in Khalidiya and we will stay here in the square and we
will not leave from here."


The U.S. State Department condemned what spokesman Mark Toner called an
escalation of violence before the monitors' deployment.

"We have seen horrific pictures of indiscriminate fire, including by heavy
tank guns, and heard reports of dozens of deaths, thousands of arrests, as
well as beatings of peaceful protestors," Toner said.

"The monitors should have unfettered access to protestors and to areas
most severely affected by the regime's crackdown. They bear a heavy
responsibility in trying to protect Syrian civilians from the depredations
of a murderous regime."

"If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League
efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect
Syrian civilians."

Armed insurgency is eclipsing civilian protest in Syria. Many fear a slide
to sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority, the driving force of
the protest movement, and minorities that have mostly stayed loyal to the
government, particularly the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs.

Analysts say the Arab League is anxious to avoid civil war. Western powers
have shown no desire to intervene militarily in a volatile region of
Middle East conflict. The U.N. Security Council is split, with Russia - a
major arms supplier to Assad - and China opposed to any hint of military

Assad's opponents appear divided on aims and tactics. He still has strong
support in important areas, including Damascus and the second city Aleppo,
and maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Iran.

(Additional reporting by Ayman Samir; Editing by Peter Graff)

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