SYRIA: Mass Protests in Homs as Arab Monitors Visit

  • by Correspondents * - IPS/Al Jazeera (doha)
  • Inter Press Service

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

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 31 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

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 are 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 notice.

'Our Syrian brothers are cooperating 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 hospitals, 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.

*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service