Friday, December 30, 2011


Activists: 32 killed as 500,000 take to Syria's streets

Arab League monitor tells protesters at mosque: 'Our goal ... not to remove' Assad but vows to report 'blood being shed'

Deadly clashes erupted in Syria on Friday as activists estimated that 500,000 protesters filled the streets to demonstrate against the government of President Bashar Assad. Activists said 32 people were shot dead as Arab League officials continued monitoring the situation on the ground.

One Arab League monitor told an angry crowd that his team's job was only to observe, not to help them remove Assad, live video on Al Jazeera showed on Friday.

"Our goal is to observe ... it is not to remove the president, our aim is to return Syria to peace and security," he said, speaking over a loudspeaker from a podium at a mosque filled with protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where Friday also saw troops fire tear gas at protesters who threw rocks at them.

But the observer, who did not give his name, said he promised to convey the protesters' sufferings.

"From what I have heard there is blood being shed," he said. "That is for sure."

A team of around 60 monitors has already arrived from a delegation that should ultimately number 150 and is expected to inspect Syria for about one month. They will check whether Assad's forces are implementing a peace plan that calls for an end to a crackdown on anti-government revolt.

Activists say they believe many monitors are pro-government or that they feel it is too difficult to communicate with the team away from government escorts. Inside the Douma mosque, the restless crowd seemed suspicious of the monitors.

A speaker from the mosque tried to calm the audience, pleading with them to let the monitor speak. But a man immediately broke the silence, shouting "My son is a martyr, they killed him," rousing chants of "With blood and soul we will redeem the martyrs."

The monitor, who asked the audience not to film him but who was broadcast on Al Jazeera Live, said: "We as monitors are not supposed to speak but the situation has forced me to say something: We are monitoring the elements of the protocol signed between the Arab League and the government."

The protocol requires that Syrian forces withdraw from cities and release detainees believed to still number in the thousands.

More than 5,000 people have been killed as the government tries to crush the protests. It says it is fighting Islamist militants steered from abroad who have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.

Al-Jazeera reported that the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 500,000 people protested across Syria on Friday, and that 32 were killed in clashes with security forces.

At least two dozen were injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said. One report said army defectors in Douma were engaged in armed clashes with troops. There were no further details.

250,000 reported in one city alone
Some 250,000 gathered after Friday's Muslim prayer in the northern province of Idlib at 74 different locations, according to the Observatory, an opposition network relaying activist reports.

"This Friday is different from any other Friday. It is a transformative step. People are eager to reach the monitors and tell them about their suffering," said activist Abu Hisham in Hama.

Earlier Friday, the anti-government Free Syrian Army ordered its fighters to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with Arab League delegates monitoring Assad's compliance with a peace plan, the rebels' commander said.

Col. Riad al-Asaad said his forces had so far been unable to talk to the monitors, in the first week of their month-long mission, and he was still trying to contact them urgently.

"I issued an order to stop all operations from the day the committee entered Syria last Friday. All operations against the regime are to be stopped except in a situation of self defense," he told Reuters.

How widely Turkey-based al-Asaad's order is heeded by anti-government gunmen inside Syria is in question. A video shot by rebel fighters this week showed the ambush of a convoy of army buses in which, activists said, four soldiers were killed.

Also Friday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said an initial assessment by the Arab League observers was "reassuring."

Moscow is one of Syria's few remaining allies following more than nine months of violence stemming from a massive protest movement.

"Moscow appraises with satisfaction the real beginning of the Arab League activities in Syria," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The ministry noted that the Sudanese general who heads the mission visited the restive city of Homs.

"The situation there is reassuring, clashes have not been recorded," the statement said.

There is broad concern about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor compliance with a plan to end to the crackdown on political opponents by security forces loyal to Assad.

The presence of Arab League monitors in Syria has re-energized the anti-government protest movement, with tens of thousands turning out this week in cities and neighborhoods where the observers are expected to visit.

The peace plan, which Syria agreed to on Dec. 19, requires 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.

State-run TV said observers have reached Idlib province, which borders Turkey; Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma. Activists said the army had either withdrawn or hid tanks in the mountains in Idlib.

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