Clashes in Syria as Arab monitors embolden protesters

The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising in Syria began

Syrian security forces have reportedly opened fire to stop tens of thousands of protesters holding rallies in front of visiting Arab League observers.

Activists say at least 35 people were killed in flashpoint cities like Hama, Deraa and Homs, all of whom were being visited by League monitors.

Running battles were fought at one of the largest rallies, in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Security forces were accused of firing live rounds, nail bombs and tear gas.

Meanwhile, Syrian state media showed pictures of what it said were pro-government rallies in several cities, including Damascus, with protesters showing their anger at a foreign-orchestrated "plot" that is "targeting Syria's stability and security".

The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March. The government says 2,000 security forces personnel have died.

Analysis

Continued violence and the rising death toll in Syria risk eclipsing the Arab League monitors' mission, before they have even built up to their full strength. Despite unease in many Western capitals nobody wants to pre-judge the outcome of the monitors' work. They are due to report towards the end of January and there is a clear hope that their conclusions will provide ammunition to take to the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, amidst signs that the Syrian economy is faltering, European Union governments are set to consider even tougher sanctions - the 11th round of economic measures to pressure the Syrian authorities. And in Washington there are reports that the Obama administration is considering increased diplomatic and practical support for the Syrian opposition; though the supply of arms or any kind of outside military intervention are - for now - out of the question.

Casualty figures and other information are hard to verify as most foreign media are barred from reporting freely in Syria.

'Nail bombs'

Around 60 monitors from the Arab League are visiting Syria to verify the implementation of a peace initiative, which demands an end to all violence, the withdrawal of troops from the streets and the release of political prisoners.

Correspondents say their presence emboldened the opposition to call on people leaving Friday prayers to join the rallies and show the scale of anti-government anger.

As many as 250,000 people took to the streets in the north-western province of Idlib, and huge rallies were also held in the cities of Hama, Homs, Deraa and in several Damascus suburbs, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

About 150,000 people staged a sit-down protest in front of the Arab League observers in Douma, a north-western suburb of the capital, said the Local Co-ordination Committees, a network of activists inside Syria.

"This Friday is different from any other," Abu Hisham, an activist in Hama, told the Reuters news agency. "People are eager to reach the monitors and tell them about their suffering."

Syria deaths

  • More than 5,000 civilians have been killed, says the UN
  • 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

Footage of Homs broadcast by al-Jazeera TV showed a huge crowd shouting: "Revolution, revolution Syria, revolution of glory and freedom Syria."

But a resident of central Damascus, Ram, told the BBC that security forces had been deployed outside his local mosque to intimidate protesters.

"It's the first time that they were showing their weapons outside," he said. "So they were telling people: 'Once you just say the word, we will shoot you'."

Activists said the protest in Douma was broken up by security forces who fired live rounds and tear gas into the demonstrators. More than 20 people were wounded by "nail bombs" as they approached the town hall where the monitors were believed to be, the Observatory said.

Security forces reportedly also opened fire on demonstrations in the cities of Idlib, Hama and Deraa.

The Local Co-ordination Committees said the nationwide death toll on Friday was 32, with nine killed in Hama, six in Deraa, six in Idlib, and four in Tal Kalakh, near the border with Lebanon.

The bodies of five members of the same family were found in the Deir Baalbah area of Homs, a day after they were arrested, it added.

Violence and the monitors

Map locator
  • Monday 26: Monitors arrive in Syria. Mass demonstration in Homs. Heavy shelling in Baba Amr district. Deaths in Homs: 30
  • Tuesday 27: Monitors arrive in Homs. Tens of thousands on streets. Deaths nationwide: 39; including 14 in Homs
  • Wednesday 28: Monitors back in Homs. Mass protest and firing in Hama. Deaths nationwide: At least 10
  • Thursday 29: Monitors in Hama, Deraa, Damascus, Idlib. Deaths nationwide: At least 40

Sources: Local Coordination Committees in Syria; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reports cannot be independently verified

'Nothing frightening'

The Arab League observer mission has faced criticism for being led by Sudan's Gen Mustafa al-Dabi, who Amnesty International has accused of carrying out human rights violations in his own country.

Gen Dabi caused some concern when he told Reuters news agency on Thursday, after a visit to Homs: "Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening." His comments were described as "reassuring" the Russian foreign ministry.

But the League has said Gen Dabi has its full support, and the US has urged detractors to allow the team to finish its work.

The Local Co-ordination Committees says 130 people have been killed since the monitors arrived in the country on Monday.

The anti-government Free Syrian Army - which claims to have more than 10,000 army defectors - says it has requested a meeting with the observers but received no response.

Col Riad al-Asaad said his forces had been ordered to stop all attacks on government troops in a bid to avoid fueling the Assad regime's claim that it is fighting armed "terrorists" rather than peaceful protesters.

Despite the presence of the Arab monitors - who are being escorted around the country by state security officials - there has been little let-up in the ferocity of the response to protests, correspondents say.

The US State Department and UK foreign office have expressed concern about the continuing violence.

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