01/12/2012 07:56 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Syria protests continue against defiant Assad

Arab League observers in Syria travelled to the troubled city of Homs on Thursday, but their movement was limited following Wednesday's deadly attack in the city.

The monitors are trying to gather testimony and evidence from people in various communities in Syria, where anti-government protesters have been rallying and calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.

CBC's Susan Ormiston and Margaret Evans also travelled to Homs, which is north of the capital, Damascus.

"When they got there, because of yesterday's incident, they decided they could not leave their hotel," Ormiston said from Damascus.

A French journalist and as many as eight Syrians were killed in Homs on Wednesday when they were hit by grenades.

"Homs is very much a battleground," Ormiston said, noting that there are barricades up everywhere and visible heavy weapons. She said several people told CBC News that nobody is firmly in control of the city, which sees frequent gunfights and noisy nighttime protests.

"It's been divided into various armed camps, including the Syrian army, including the opposition. But other sectarian groups, too, are fighting over that same turf."

More than 160 foreign monitors have travelled to Syria to determine whether the Assad government is complying with the terms of a peace plan, brokered by the Arab League, that seeks an end to a 10-month crackdown on dissent.

Syrian opposition groups have criticized the Arab League mission, saying it is giving Assad cover for his crackdown. The mission's Sudanese chief has also raised concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Critics also say the mission is far too small and too dependent on government escorts to be effective, but the regime says the escorts are vital to the monitors' personal safety.

Simon Collis, the British ambassador to Syria, told CBC News that the observers are still in Syria, doing their work.

"We think it's important that they should be given some time to complete that work," Collis said. "At the end of the day, there will have to be a transition here."

An ex-observer told Al-Jazeera earlier this week that the mission was a "farce" and that the monitors had been fooled by the Syrian regime.

On Thursday, Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi defended the mission to the BBC, saying the observers were making a difference. He cited an increase in peaceful demonstrations, and said that military tanks and vehicles had been pulled out of many residential areas.

He told the BBC that the observer who called the mission a farce didn't leave his hotel and was "not on the ground" in Syria.

However, the Arab League boss did agree that the Syrian regime was "not acting in good faith."

In Damascus, the mood was relatively quiet Thursday, Ormiston said, but pockets of protest continued in contested areas outside the capital city.

Demonstrations have been happening nightly in small pockets around the country and in larger restive cities like Homs. They have persisted despite a government crackdown that has seen more than 5,000 people killed since the uprising began in March, according to the United Nations.

Surprise Assad appearance

On Wednesday night, demonstrators took to the streets after Assad made a rare public appearance at an event in Damascus.

Accompanied by his family and bodyguards, Assad told the crowd the regime would defeat "the conspiracy" which he claims has been fuelling widespread anti-government protests.

"I wanted to be with you so I can draw strength from you in the face of everything that Syria is subjected to," Assad said. "I have that faith in the future and we will undoubtedly triumph over this conspiracy."

Demonstrators opposed to the regime responded, taking to the streets overnight to express their displeasure.

"We hide our face because we are afraid," one young man yelled over anti-regime chants from the late-night demonstration in a Damascus suburb.

Thousands of protesters have been taken from the area by security forces and more than 300 of them are still being held, Ormiston said.

One of the organizers of the protest, who asked that his identity be protected out of concern for his safety, said some people in the town "went to the street looking for freedom" and people were killed.

"We paid the price," he told Ormiston, but added that pro-democracy demonstrations would continue there.

An estimated 400 people have died since the monitors began arriving in Syria Dec. 26, according to the UN.

CBC journalists are inside Syria this week, where few foreign journalists have been permitted to work. Although their activities are monitored and they are constantly accompanied by government representatives, their reports are not censored or otherwise edited by outside agencies before being published.