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Middle East

Assad accused of hiding tanks to appease observers

Human rights groups say military will be back in force on streets of Homs once Arab League departs

The tanks that have terrorised the bullet-pocked, rubble-strewn streets of Homs were seen pulling out of its most restive neighbourhoods yesterday – but they are unlikely to have gone far.

Eleven tanks and other military vehicles were seen withdrawing from Baba Amr, the district that has borne the brunt of the army's bloody crackdown over the past few days, just ahead of the arrival of Arab League monitors.

However, human rights groups said the vehicles had not gone far, remaining hidden in government buildings and warehouses. "There's nothing to say they have left Homs. They will be back on the streets as soon as the observers have left," said Wissam Tarif, head of the human rights group Insan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, described the withdrawal as a "show" which "proves the regime's continuation in deception".

The team of around 60 Arab League monitors is tasked with assessing whether President Bashar al-Assad's government is complying with the organisation's peace plan which it signed. It requires the regime to stop the violent oppression of its people.

After arriving over the weekend, the team headed straight for Homs, where 34 people were killed by the security forces on Monday alone, according to activists. Videos purporting to be from the city painted a grim picture of the price the city of just over 800,000 people has paid for becoming what has been dubbed "the capital of the revolution". Bodies lie slumped in the streets in pools of blood as the sound of gunfire rings out. A further 39 people were killed across the country yesterday, including 14 in Homs despite the presence of the observers, according to the Local Coordinaton Committees.

As the tanks made their exit yesterday morning, over 100,000 people took to the streets in various districts across the city, according to rights groups. At a funeral of an activist killed the previous day, one man rallied the crowds through a loudspeaker: "Listen Bashar: If you fire bullets, grenades or shells at us, we will not be scared."

In Khalidya, 35,000 were said to have rallied, waving flags, whistling and chanting: "Down with the regime."

Later, as many as 70,000 people marched on Clock Square in downtown Homs and were dispersed with tear gas, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The observers were due to meet with the governor of the Homs province and activists, but human rights groups criticised the fact that they were accompanied by government minders.

"If there are security forces with the monitors, how can anyone meet with them and speak with them safely?" asked Mr Tarif. "It compromises the whole mission's credibility."

Former Sudanese intelligence chief General Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the monitoring team, said they would be remaining in Homs for now. He described progress as "very good", adding: "all sides were responsive". Some of the country's opposition have viewed the visit with scepticism, even going as far as accusing the league of collaborating in a conspiracy with the regime.