Middle East

Clashes in Syria as Arab monitors embolden protesters

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.

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."

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.

'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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