December 27, 2011

Syria unrest: Arab League monitors begin mission

Tank on the streets on Homs, Syria (26 Dec 2011)Activists say the army has repeatedly opened fire on civilians in Homs
A group of 50 Arab League observers has begun its mission in Syria to verify compliance with a regional plan to end months of violence.
The head of the mission was reported to be heading to the volatile city of Homs, where activists said security forces killed 30 people on Monday.
Under the plan, all armed forces must withdraw from areas of conflict.
The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed in a crackdown against anti-government protests.
The uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March, inspired by a wave of rebellions across the Arab world.
The Syrian government says it is fighting armed gangs and that hundreds of members of the security forces have been killed as well.
Casualty figures are hard to verify as most foreign media are banned from reporting in Syria.
Map of Syria showing Damascus and Homs
The latest bloodshed is reported to have taken place largely in the Baba Amr district of Homs. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 18 people were killed in that area on Monday.
Another 11 were killed elsewhere in the city and a woman in nearby Talbisseh, said the Observatory.
One resident of Homs told the BBC in a telephone call that the city was surrounded by government forces and many buildings had been destroyed.
"Some of us are trying to reach the destroyed buildings to search for survivors. In the middle of the day we can't reach them because there are snipers all around," he said.
"They are going to kill all of us, all the civilian people here in Baba Amr."
Graphic footage purporting to show the aftermath of heavy shelling in Baba Amr has been posted on the internet.


The mission is getting under way in earnest now. Syria has said it is responsible for the security of the Arab observers, so it remains to be seen how free their access to trouble spots will be.
The head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, has said it will take about a week to judge whether Syria really is complying with the agreement it signed, under which the observers are to monitor a complete halt to the violence, the withdrawal of armed forces, and the release of all detainees, of whom there are many thousands.
In advance of the observers' arrival, activists accused the authorities of moving detainees onto military bases - where the observers are not allowed to go - and also of removing hundreds of bodies of killed protesters from the morgue at Homs.
It shows the bleeding corpses of four young men and a woman screaming for help from the international community.
Large numbers of army deserters are reported to have joined armed rebels in the Free Syrian Army in recent weeks to launch attacks on pro-government troops.
"The violence is definitely two-sided," one Homs resident told Reuters. "I've been seeing ambulances filled with wounded soldiers passing by my window in the past days. They're getting shot somehow."
Freedom of movement
The 50 monitors and 10 officials from the Arab League secretariat arrived on Monday from Cairo - several days after a nine-member advance team arrived in Damascus.
Their mission is to assess an Arab League initiative agreed with the Syrian government requiring all armed forces to withdraw from areas of conflict.
Damascus has pledged to allow the monitors full freedom of movement, but they will depend on the regime to provide security.
The head of the mission, Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, said he was on the way to Homs and that the Syrian authorities were being helpful.
"I am going to Homs. Till now, they have been very co-operative," AFP news agency quoted Gen Dabi as saying.
Earlier, the leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main umbrella group of opponents to President Assad, said some of the observers had already arrived in Homs, but had so far been unable to travel freely.
Burhan Ghalioun, who is based in Paris, said the observers were "being held prisoners by the Syrian system".
"We ask for the Arab leaders who designed this plan to intervene and make the Syrian regime stop this massacre," he told reporters.
He also called on the UN and European leaders to intervene, saying the League's plan was good but that it did not have the power to enforce it.

Syria deaths

  • More than 5,000 civilians have been killed
  • UN denied access to Syria
  • Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrian nationals who have fled
  • The death toll is compiled as a list of names which the UN cross-references
  • Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
  • Tally does not include serving members of the security forces
Source: UN's OHCHR
The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says Homs may well prove to be a test case for the observer mission in terms of ascertaining whether they truly have unrestricted access and whether there is any peace for them to monitor.
Graphic footage
The observer mission will eventually have up to 200 members, and it plans to meet both government officials and the opposition.
On Friday, two suicide car bombings in Damascus killed 44 people and left more than 150 injured, Syrian officials said. They blamed al-Qaeda, but the opposition suggested security forces were behind the blasts.
With a solid security presence, Damascus had largely escaped the violence and protests that have flared in central and northern provinces, although there have been protests in suburbs.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the monitors to back the government's claim that armed gangs were behind the continuing violence.

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