NEWS

Arab monitors arrive in restive Syrian city

12/27/2011 06:30 EST | Updated 02/26/2012 05:12 EST

Syria's army halted its siege of Homs, the country's third-largest city, as tens of thousands of protesters welcomed the arrival of 16 Arab League monitors in a continued show of defiance against the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The large protest in Homs, considered the epicentre of a months-long anti-Assad uprising that has been marked by an increasingly bloody crackdown by government forces, coincided with an Arab League observer team's first visit to the region.

Amateur video showed tens of thousands flooding the streets of the city, which had been under siege for days, to march in a funeral. They carried the open casket overhead with the exposed face of an older man with a white beard.

"Listen Bashar: If you fire bullets, grenades or shells at us, we will not be scared," one person shouted to the crowd through loudspeakers. Many were waving Syria's independence flag, which predates the 1963 ascendancy of Assad's Baath party to power.

Hivin Kako, a spokesperson with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said about 70,000 people joined the street protest in Homs, emboldened by the presence of Arab League monitors.

"The fear barrier is broken," Kako told CBC News from Leuven, Belgium. "People want to get the message through: 'We want freedom, we want change — we are entitled to it.'"

Activist groups said the death toll continued to rise on Tuesday, with between 16 and 30 people killed in the country, including several people in Homs. But with foreign journalists and human rights groups banned from the country, such numbers are difficult to verify.

Violence persists despite peace plan

The Arab League monitors are tasked with overseeing a peace plan aimed at ending the violent crackdown on protesters who have been calling for democratic reforms over the past nine months. Nearly 300 civilians have been killed by government forces since Syria signed off on the peace plan on Dec. 19, while clashes between army defectors and regime troops killed another 150.

After reaching Homs, the monitors toured the city and met with the local governor. Teams of observers also planned visits to Damascus, Hama and Idlib.

Sudanese Gen. Mustafa Dabi, who is leading the 60-person mission, said officials he met were "responsive" to the monitors. He added that he was going to Damascus but would return to Homs on Wednesday, while other observers would stay behind in the restive city. They planned to fan out in five smaller groups of 10 monitors each during their month-long mission.

More than 30 people were reportedly killed in Homs on Monday in the latest round of shelling by security forces.

Opposition activist Mohammed Saleh said the heavy bombardment stopped Tuesday morning and at least six tanks were seen pulling out of the streets.

He said it was unclear whether other tanks remained. However, witnesses were quoted as saying the Syrian army was hiding tanks inside the Baba Amr neighbourhood of the city, which has been bombarded by shelling since Friday.

One Homs-based activist said he saw armoured vehicles leaving early Tuesday on a highway leading to the city of Palmyra to the east. He asked that his name not be made public for fear of retribution.

Syrian government 'fully committed' to Arab protocol

Syrian authorities say the Arab League observers will be allowed to come and go as they please. A spokesman for the Syrian government says it supports the work of the 50-member observer mission.

"From the Syrian side, we are fully committed to the [Arab League] protocol," said Jihad Makdisi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry. "We will facilitate their task and they will be free to go wherever they want in terms of the protocol."

But Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, questioned whether the observer mission would be able to fulfill its mandate without additional staff. A total of 150 Arab League monitors are due to arrive in the country.

"That's just not going to cut it," he told CBC News from New York.

Another problem, Badran said, is that the observers have been moving through the country sequentially — hopping from one neighbourhood to another, then from one city to another — instead of simultaneously. Government forces have had time to manoeuvre as a result, which "jeopardizes the whole purpose" of the mission, he said.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-government protests began there in March.

MORE:cbcNews