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Mass protests in Syrian city as monitors arrive

This image made from amateur video and released by Ugarit News Group Tuesday purports to show a Syrian military tank in Homs, Syria. As Arab League investigators arrived in the city, the tanks were pulled back.

Associated Press

This image made from amateur video and released by Ugarit News Group Tuesday purports to show a Syrian military tank in Homs, Syria. As Arab League investigators arrived in the city, the tanks were pulled back.

BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of defiant Syrian protesters thronged the streets of Homs on Tuesday, calling for the execution of President Bashar Assad shortly after his army pulled its tanks back and allowed Arab League monitors in for the first time to the city at the heart of the antigovernment uprising.

The pullback was the first sign the regime was complying with the League's plan to end the 9-month-old crackdown on mostly unarmed and peaceful protesters.

Yet amateur video released by activists showed forces firing on protesters even while the monitors were inside the city. One of the observers walked with an elderly man who pointed with his cane to a fresh pool of blood on the street that he said had been shed by his son, killed a day earlier.

Syrian tanks had been heavily shelling Homs for days, residents and activists said, killing dozens even after Assad signed on early last week to the Arab League plan, which demands the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country.

But a few hours before the arrival of the monitors, who began work Tuesday to ensure Syria complies with the League's plan, the army stopped the bombardment and pulled some of its tanks back.

The British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that government forces fired on protesters while the monitors were inside Homs and said at least two people were killed from the fire.

About 60 monitors arrived in Syria on Monday night — the first foreign observers Syria has allowed in since March, when the uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule began. The League said a team of 12 visited Homs.

After agreeing to the League's pullback plan on Dec. 19, the regime intensified its crackdown on dissent; government troops killed hundreds in the past week and Syria was condemned internationally for flouting the spirit of the agreement.

On Monday, security forces killed at least 42 people, most of them in Homs. Activists said security forces killed at least 16 people Tuesday, including six in Homs.

One group put Tuesday's toll at 30, including 13 in Homs province. Different groups often give varying tolls. With foreign journalists and human rights groups barred from the country, tolls are virtually impossible to verify.

Amateur videos show residents of Homs pleading with the visiting monitors for protection.

"We are unarmed people who are dying," one resident shouts to one observer. Seconds later, shooting is heard from a distance as someone else screams: "We are being slaughtered here."

Given the intensified crackdown over the past week, the opposition has viewed Syria's agreement to the Arab League plan as a farce. Some even accuse the organization of 22 states of complicity in the killings. Activists say the regime is trying to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.

"The Syrian government will cooperate symbolically enough in order not to completely alienate the Arab League," said Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "But make no mistake about it, its survival strategy is to keep kicking the can down the road, until domestic and international circumstances change in its favor."

Opponents of Assad doubt the Arab League can budge the autocratic leader at the head of one of the Middle East's most repressive regimes. Syria's top opposition leader, Burhan Ghalioun, called Sunday for the League to bring the U.N. Security Council into the effort. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March in the political violence.

Shortly after the tanks pulled back and stopped shelling, the videos showed tens of thousands flooding into the streets and marching defiantly in a funeral. They carried the open casket overhead with the exposed face of an 80-year-old man with a white beard.

Many were waving Syria's independence flag, which predates the 1963 ascendancy of Assad's Baath party to power.

"The people want to execute Bashar," chanted a group as they walked side-by-side with monitors through one of Homs' streets. "Long live the Free Syrian Army," they chanted, referring to the force of army defectors fighting Assad's troops.

The amateur video also showed a man picking up the remains of a mortar round and showing it to the observers.

The Observatory for Human Rights said as the monitors visited Homs, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in some neighborhoods to "reveal the crimes committed by the regime."

Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has a population of 800,000 and is at the epicenter of the revolt against Assad. It is about 100 miles north of the capital, Damascus. Many Syrians refer to it as the "Capital of the Revolution."

Opposition activist Mohammed Saleh said four days of heavy bombardment in Homs stopped in the morning on Tuesday and tanks were seen pulling out.

The Associated Press reported that a local official in Homs said the team of monitors, headed by Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, met with Ghassan Abdul-Aal, the governor of Homs province. After the meeting, the monitors headed to several tense districts including Baba Amr and Inshaat, sites of the most intense crackdowns since Friday.

AP, citing the unnamed official, said most members of the Arab team headed back to Damascus, while three were to spend the night in Homs.

Mass protests in Syrian city as monitors arrive 12/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 9:18pm]
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