Mass Protests in Homs as Monitors Arrive

Posted December 27th, 2011 at 7:40 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian security forces fired tear gas to disperse tens of thousands of protesters who rallied in Homs Tuesday, as Arab League observers visited the city to monitor government pledges to withdraw troops, release political prisoners and halt violence.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 70,000 anti-government protesters chanting calls to execute President Bashar al-Assad marched toward the city center when security forces confronted them.

The Observatory confirmed amateur video showing troops also fired live ammunition on demonstrators in Homs. It said six people were killed in the city Tuesday, among 15 protest-related deaths nationwide.

A contingent from the 12 Arab League observers visiting Homs met with the regional governor and then with opposition representatives inside the city. The delegation's head told Reuters that the first day of talks was “very good” and that “all sides were responsive.”

Sporadic fighting continued Tuesday in the hard-hit Homs district of Baba Amr, an opposition stronghold. Activists said some tanks were seen leaving the area, while others were hidden in government zones from where they could be quickly redeployed when monitors leave.

Video posted on YouTube appears to show several men pleading with observers to venture farther into Baba Amr, and to announce that they had been prevented from seeing key areas because of government sniper fire.

Rights groups have questioned whether monitors can work independently and if the relatively small number of observers will render the mission ineffective. Initially 500 monitors were to have entered Syria, but now only 150 are likely to be allowed into the country.

Fifty observers and 10 other Arab League officials arrived in the capital, Damascus, on Monday. The Arab League says the monitors also will visit several other Syrian cities, including Idlib, Hama and Daraa.

The French foreign ministry says the observers have arrived at a time when Syria's unrest has “never been as tragic” as it is now in Homs. The city has become the center of the nine-month uprising against Mr. Assad.

Activists said security forces killed at least 34 people in Homs on Monday before monitors arrived. The state-run SANA news agency reported “armed terrorists” blew up a gas pipeline in Homs on Tuesday. It also said “terrorists” clashed with authorities near the Turkish border.

The United Nations estimates 5,000 people have been killed since March in violence linked to Syria's unrest. Syria says armed terrorists are driving the revolt. It accuses them of killing 2,000 security personnel since March.

Syrian authorities agreed to the Arab League observers under international pressure and threats of Arab sanctions. The plan requires Syrian authorities to give the monitors freedom of movement everywhere except sensitive military sites.