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Friday 30 December 2011

New Clashes in Syria as Monitors’ Mission Is Challenged

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian security forces killed at least five people in Hama on Friday, according to a rights group, as hundreds of thousands of people staged protests across the country that were intended to show visiting Arab League monitors the extent of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

“Five were martyred today and at least 20 wounded when the Syrian security forces opened fire,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, according to Reuters. The activist groups said at least 250,000 people were on the streets of Idlib after Friday Prayers. Activists in Hama and the Damascus suburb of Douma said tens of thousands of Syrians were involved in the latest protests, throwing stones at the security forces, after several people were killed in unrest on Thursday. Al Jazeera television showed live video of what appeared to be thousands of demonstrators in Homs.
The rebel Free Syrian Army also said on Friday that it would stop its offensive against government targets during the monthlong mission by the Arab League monitors. The group’s leader, Col. Riad al-As’aad, told The Associated Press that the group halted its attacks after the observers arrived this week.
On Thursday, a prominent Syrian dissident, Haytham Manna, who has supported the observers, called for the delegation’s leader to be replaced or have his powers reduced. The leader of the observers, Lt. Gen. Muhammed al-Dabi of Sudan, has become a lightning rod for complaints about the team. Human rights activists say his credentials — including time as the chief of a military intelligence branch in Sudan that has been accused of atrocities — make him a poor candidate for the job.
In a statement, Mr. Manna said he was surprised by the choice of Mr. Dabi for the Arab League mission, though he did not refer to him by name. “We know his history and his shallow experience in this area,” Mr. Manna said. “I call for the Secretariat of the Arab League to work quickly to save the observers’ mission.”
The observers are supposed to monitor promises by Mr. Assad’s government to withdraw its forces from populated areas and release political prisoners.
A surge of violence in recent days has almost completely eclipsed the observers’ work. Activists have complained that government attacks have accelerated and that security forces have tried to mislead the observers by dressing soldiers in police uniforms and using other subterfuges.
“We were almost sure the regime wouldn’t change with the presence of the observers,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the Local Coordinating Committees, which guide the antigovernment demonstrations. But, he added: “We are cooperating. Closing the door is wrong.”
At the same time, armed opposition groups have shown no signs of ending their attacks against the security forces.
Video posted online by activists on Wednesday showed a daylight attack by gunmen on what was apparently a government convoy. The attack, by army defectors, killed at least four members of the security services, according to opposition groups.
Reporters who visited a military hospital in Homs saw a wounded solider and spoke to a doctor, who said that 557 people, mostly soldiers, had died in the hospital or been brought there after being killed between March 25 and Nov. 11, The Associated Press reported. The government’s opponents are generally treated in field hospitals in mosques or private homes, according to activists.
In Homs on Thursday, gunmen killed a military engineer and wounded a general, according to the Syrian state news agency.
By the afternoon, there was still no sign of the observers in the southern Syrian city of Dara’a, the scene of the uprising’s earliest and biggest demonstrations, according to Anwar Farres, a human rights advocate there. There was also no indication that the government was withdrawing, he said.
“This place is like a military base,” Mr. Farres said. “Our people will meet them with or without the presence of government forces.”
Later, another activist said the observers did show up, but only met with the governor.
There were similar frustrations in Hama, and more violence. One activist in the city said that snipers had been deployed and four people were killed on Thursday. Protesters had confined their demonstrations to “narrow neighborhoods,” rather than open spaces like Assi Square in the center of the city, he said.
“We would be shot,” he said.

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