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Arab Monitors in Syria Flashpoint Towns

Correspondents* - IPS/Al Jazeera

DOHA, Qatar, Dec 28 2011 (IPS) - Arab League observers are to visit three key protest hubs in Syria as world powers have urged Damascus to give full access to monitor if the country is implementing a plan to end a crackdown on protests.

Violence at anti-government protests continued on Wednesday, as video shared by activists in the central city of Hama showed gunshots being fired and black smoke rising above the city. Dozens of men were seen marching through the streets, chanting “Where are the Arab monitors?”

More violence was reported in the southern province of Deraa on Wednesday, where the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that army defectors killed at least four Syrian soldiers. The organisation also reported that one person was killed in Homs.

Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the mission, said on Wednesday that monitors would head to Hama and to Idlib, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, where there has been fierce fighting between security forces and fighters who back the protesters.

They would also go to Deraa, which is the cradle of the nine-month uprising against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and also a site of heavy bloodshed.

Al-Dabi, who visited the central city of Homs with his team a day earlier, said the members of the mission “did not see anything frightening”.

“Yesterday was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not see tanks but we did see some armoured vehicles,” he said. “But remember this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time.”

A Homs-based activist told the Reuters news agency that some families of people who have died in the violence there refused to meet with the monitors because they were being escorted by an army officer.

His statements came as activists reported the death of at least 42 people across the country on Tuesday, including 17 in Homs.

They charged that the army had pulled back heavy armour from the Homs flashpoint neighbourhood of Baba Amro ahead of the monitors’ visit, accusing the regime of deception.

The French foreign ministry on Wednesday also made the same allegation, insisting that observers “must be allowed to return without delay to this martyr city, to travel everywhere in it freely and to have the necessary contact with the public.”

‘Full access’

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, also urged Syria to give the observers maximum freedom as they go about their mission in the violence-wracked country.

“We constantly work with the Syrian leadership calling on it to fully cooperate with observers from the Arab League and to create work conditions that are as comfortable and free as possible,” Lavrov said.

The U.S. also demanded that Syrian authorities allow the mission full access and urged monitors to report what they find to the international community.

“We obviously look to these individuals to be intrepid in their search for the truth of what’s happening on the ground,” Mark Toner, the U.S. state department’s deputy spokesman, said.

“The regime used the last several days as an opportunity to escalate their attacks on several … neighbourhoods in Homs and other cities prior to the deployment of these monitors,” he added.

The Arab League plan endorsed by Syria on Nov. 2 calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

Syrian state television reported on Wednesday that the government has released 755 detainees “whose hands were not stained with blood”.

But Human Rights Watch (HRW), a U.S.-based rights organisation, accused the government of hiding from the observers hundreds of detainees held in its crackdown on dissent.

“Syrian authorities have transferred perhaps hundreds of detainees to off-limits military sites to hide them from Arab League monitors now in the country,” an HRW statement said.

Violence in Homs

On Tuesday, activists said that Syrian police used tear gas to disperse an estimated 70,000 people who took to the streets of Homs as the observers visited.

Some demonstrators were fired at with live ammunition as they made their way to Sa’a square, and four were wounded, one seriously.

Before joining the march on Al-Sa’a square, tens of thousands staged a sit-in in the al-Khalidiyeh neighbourhood, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a London-based group), which also reported demonstrations in Bab Dreib and Jub al-Jandali districts.

At least 34 civilians were reportedly killed in Homs’ Baba Amro district on Monday.

The U.N. estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since anti-government protests began in mid-March.

*Published under an agreement with Al-Jazeera.

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