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News, December 2011
38 Syrian Protesters Killed in One Day, During Visit of Arab League Monitors
December 30, 2011
Syrian protesters out in force as Arab League monitors visit
Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 22 people on Friday as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across the country to show the strength of their movement to Arab League observers.
AP - In the largest protests Syria has seen in months, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in a display of defiance to show an Arab League observer mission the strength of the opposition movement.
Despite the monitors’ presence in the country, activists said Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 22 people, most of them shot during the anti-government demonstrations (Al-Jazeera TV reported that the total number of people who were killed today, December 30, 2011, was 38)..
In a further attempt to appeal to the monitors, dissident troops who have broken away from the Syrian army said they have halted attacks on regime forces to reinforce the activists’ contention that the uprising against Assad is a peaceful movement.
While opposition activists are deeply skeptical of the
observer mission, the outpouring of demonstrators across Syria
underscores their wish to make their case to the foreign
monitors and take advantage of the small measure of safety they
feel they brought with them.
Friday’s crowds were largest in Idlib and Hama provinces, with about 250,000 people turning out in each area, according to an activist and eyewitness who asked to be identified only as Manhal because he feared government reprisal.
Other big rallies were held in Homs and Daraa provinces and the Damascus suburb of Douma, according to Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The crowd estimates could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the local media.
Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident and human rights defender, said the observers’ presence has emboldened protesters to take to the streets in huge numbers.
“Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests - a basic condition of the Arab League peace plan,” he told The Associated Press.
The observers began their mission Tuesday in Homs, often referred to by many Syrians as the “Capital of the Revolution.” Since then, they have fanned out in small groups across Syrian provinces, including the restive Idlib province in the north, Hama in the center and the southern province of Daraa, where the revolt began.
The orange-jacketed observers have been seen taking pictures of the destruction, visiting families of victims of the crackdown, and taking notes. On Friday, they were within “hearing distance” from where troops opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activist Salim al-Omar said. They later visited the wounded in hospital, he added.
Despite questions about the human rights record of the man leading the monitors, tens of thousands have turned out this week in cities and neighborhoods where they were expected to visit.
The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces, apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In general, activists say, security forces have launched attacks when observers were not present.
But there have been some reports of firing on protesters while monitors were nearby.
Omar Shaker, an activist and resident of the battered neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, said the observers were “laughable,” often walking around with outdated cameras and without pens.
“Still, the bombardment and killings have decreased here in their presence. We see them as a kind of human shields, that’s all,” he said. Shaker said around 7,000 protested Friday in Baba Amr _ the first demonstration in the besieged district in more than a week. “People are feeling optimistic,” he said. “We’ve been protesting and dying for 10 months. We have the feeling that the worst is over and the end is near,” he added.
In Douma, up to 100,000 people protested Friday. Amateur videos posted on the Internet by activists showed demonstrators carrying away a bleeding comrade after being hit by a gas canister.
“Look, Arab League, look!” the cameraman is heard shouting. The British-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the regime used nail bombs against protesters in Douma. The report was confirmed by Douma activist al-Omar. In another video, a huge crowd packed a main street in Homs, singing anti-Assad songs and dancing in unison.
The crowd sang, “We will die in freedom,” to the festive beat
of a drum, as the unidentified cameraman proclaimed, “For months
we didn’t hear anything on Friday” because of the crackdown.
“But because of the observer committee, they didn’t fire a
Thousands turned out in the city of Idlib to welcome the observers, filling a large square, waving olive branches and flags, and chanting, “The people want the fall of Bashar.”
But the ongoing violence in Syria, and questions about the human rights record of the head of the Arab League monitors, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, are reinforcing the opposition’s view that Syria’s limited cooperation with the observers is merely a ploy by Assad to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.
One of Assad’s few remaining allies, Russia, voiced its approval of the observer mission so far, calling the situation “reassuring.” The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab League observers began their one-month mission.
On Friday, activists said security forces fired on protesters in Daraa, Hama, Idlib and Douma. In the central city of Homs, six people who were reported missing a day earlier were confirmed dead. The Observatory reported 22 people were killed nationwide, most of them shot while protesting. The Local Coordination Committees activist network reported 32 were killed. The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.
The Arab League plan, which Syria agreed to Dec. 19, demands that the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners. Pro-Assad groups turned out for rallies in Damascus and several other cities, waving portraits of the president, in an apparent bid to show that the regime has popular support.
Also Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it has stopped its offensive against government targets since the observers arrived, in a bid to avoid fueling government claims that it is facing armed “terrorists” rather than peaceful protesters.
“We stopped to show respect to Arab brothers, to prove that
there are no armed gangs in Syria, and for the monitors to be
able to go wherever they want,” breakaway air force Col. Riad
al-Asaad, leader of the FSA, told the AP by telephone from his
base in Turkey.
The Free Syrian Army says it has about 15,000 army defectors.
The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on government
installations that have killed scores of soldiers and members of
the security forces.
Seventeen dead as Syrians stage mass protests
BEIRUT | Fri Dec 30, 2011 3:52pm EST
BEIRUT (Reuters) -
Syrian security forces opened fire at protesters on Friday, killing at least 12, as hundreds of thousands filled the streets of restive cities to demonstrate against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said.
Five members of the security forces also were killed in a shooting in the city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Assad, 46, has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his heavy weaponry and army from cities, where more than 5,000 people have been killed since March - many shot during peaceful anti-government protests but also many killed in rebel attacks and local defense actions.
But the presence of Arab League monitors in hotspots across Syria since Monday has, if anything, energized the protesters.
Demonstrators determined to show the strength of their movement to the monitors on Friday threw rocks at security forces in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where troops tear-gassed the chanting crowds.
Five people were shot dead in the city of Hama and five in the city of Deraa in the south as crowds braved army and police.
"We are determined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there's bloodshed is not important," an activist named Abu Khaled said by telephone from the northern city of Idlib, one of the epicenters of nine months of unrest.
Most foreign media are banned from Syria and witness reports are hard to verify.
An opposition supporter named Manhal said thousands had tried to reach the main square to start a sit-in but failed "because the security forces are firing a lot of tear gas and a few rounds of live fire."
"People hoped the presence of monitors will prevent fierce attacks. I believe we have partial protection, I don't think they would use live fire on us in front of the monitors."
The Observatory reported the deaths in Hama and Deraa. It said security forces had shot dead two people and wounded 37 in Idlib province. At least two dozen were also injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said.
Amateur video from Idlib showed monitors in white baseball caps and yellow safety vests wading through a sea of protesters.
Some rushed at the observers, trying to shout a few words over the thousands chanting "The people want to liberate the country!"
Protesters flooded the alleyways and streets of many protest centers, clapping and shouting "Peaceful, Peaceful" and "The people want you executed, Bashar!"
Some held up banners with the names of those shot dead in protests: "We will not forget your spilled blood," they read.
In parts of Hama, videos showed protesters fleeing the main streets as heavy gunfire erupted in the background. In one such segment, a few men rushed back, ducking in the crackle of gunfire, to carry away a man who had fallen limp in the street.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, protesters bore away a man whose leg had been shredded by what they said were nail bombs.
Activists in Idlib said the army had concealed its tanks in buildings on the outskirts or in dugouts.
The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset - over its makeup, its small numbers, its reliance on Syrian government logistics, and an initial assessment by its Sudanese chief that the situation was "reassuring."
That comment was met with disbelief in the West on Wednesday but on Friday Syria's ally Russia accepted the judgment.
"Judging by the public statements made by the chief of the mission (Sudanese general Mohammed) al-Dabi, who in the first of his visits went to the city of Homs ... the situation seems to be reassuring," Russia's Foreign Ministry said on its website.
However on Friday al-Dabi, whom some link to war crimes in Darfur in the 1990s, said the reports of his comments were "unfounded and not true", a mission statement said. It said all future statements would be in writing.
Reacting to the skepticism that has been voiced about the mission and its leader, the United Nations said on Friday it was critical that the team's "independence and impartiality be fully preserved."
Spokesman Martin Nesirky urged the Arab League to "take all steps possible to ensure that its observer mission will be able to fulfill its mandate in accordance with international human rights law standards." The world body was willing to give the League observers training on human rights monitoring, he added.
Activist video from Homs over the months has depicted a trail of death and destruction sown by the military.
"Unfortunately, reports show that the violence has continued in Syria over the past few days," said Britain's Foreign Office minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt.
"I urge the Syrian government to meet fully its obligations to the Arab League, including immediately ending the repression and withdrawing security forces from cities."
In Brussels, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU "urges Syria to comply with the action plan of the Arab league in all its components" including "an immediate end of violence, the release of political prisoners (and) pulling the military out of cities."
PARTNER FOR PEACE?
The monitoring teams have encountered a range of problems, from hostility when they turn up under army escort to random gunfire, shouting mobs and communications breakdowns.
An Arab League member from a Gulf State played down expectations for the mission, which has no peacekeeping mandate.
Even if its report turned out to be negative, it would not "act as a bridge to foreign intervention" but simply indicate that "the Syrian government has not implemented the Arab initiative", the delegate told Reuters.
The commander of the anti-government Free Syrian Army told Reuters its fighters had been ordered to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with Arab League delegates.
"All operations against the regime are to be stopped except in a situation of self defense," Colonel Riad al-Asaad said. "We have tried to communicate with them and we requested a meeting with the team. So far there hasn't been any success."
Just how widely the Turkey-based commander's order will be heeded by anti-government gunmen inside Syria is in question. A video shot by rebels this week showed the ambush of a convoy of army buses in which, activists said, four soldiers were killed.
The FSA, formed by thousands of defectors from Assad's army and financed by expatriate Syrians, has taken the offensive in the past three months, taking the fight to the state rather than simply trying to defend opposition strongholds.
Its decisions are potentially crucial to any peace plan.
Syria says it is fighting Islamist militants steered from abroad who have killed more than 2,000 of its troops. Activists do not dispute a significant toll among the security forces.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow, Ayman Samir and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Stephen Addison in London; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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