Syrian security forces opened fire on thousands of anti-government protesters in the central city of Hama on Wednesday and killed at least six people, according to activists, as Arab League monitors on a mission to end the regime's crackdown on dissent visited another flashpoint city nearby.
Though Syria has made some concessions to the monitors since they began work on Tuesday, government forces have at the same time been pressing ahead with attempts to put down peaceful protests in Hama, Homs and other parts of the country. Activists said at least 39 people have been killed by security forces in the two days since the observers arrived.
The government released 755 prisoners following a report by Human Rights Watch accusing authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees from the observers. It was the second concession in two days to the Arab League.
On Monday, the army pulled some of its troops back from the city of Homs after bombarding it for days and killing scores of people. It allowed the monitors to visit and as they came, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets, chanting calls for the execution of President Bashar Assad.
The 60 Arab League monitors in Syria are supposed to be ensuring the regime is complying with the terms of a plan to end the crackdown on protests. The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since March.
The plan 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. It calls for the release of all political prisoners.
The Arab observers kicked off their one month mission with the visit on Tuesday to Homs — the first time Syria has allowed outside monitors to the city at the heart of the anti-government uprising.
Several from the team of 12 stayed in the city overnight, and the team continued to work in Homs on Wednesday. There was no word on whether other teams went to different cities.
The monitors are expected to visit Hama, Idlib and Daraa on Thursday, all centers of the uprising.
In Hama, several thousand protesters were trying to reach the city's main Assi square to stage a sit-in amid a heavy security presence when troops opened fire with bullets and tear gas to disperse them, activists said.
Hama-based activist Saleh Abu Kamel told The Associated Press he had the names of six people who were killed and many other wounded in the shooting. The number could not be immediately confirmed.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees confirmed the protests and the shooting, giving conflicting casualty figures.
Violence erupted in several other parts of the country. Activists reported two deaths in the Baba Amr district of Homs, and at least four soldiers killed in an ambush by a group of military defectors in the country's south.
Activists said at least nine people were killed on Tuesday and 30 on Monday.
The opposition has said Syria's agreement to the Arab League plan is a farce, because the regime has only stepped up the crackdown since signing on to the deal on 19 December. Since then, military forces have killed several hundred people. The opposition suspects the regime is just trying to buy time and forestall more international sanctions and condemnation.
Despite the ongoing crackdown, an Arab League official said cooperation by Syrian authorities with the monitors was "reassuring."
"The Syrian side is facilitating everything," Adnan Issa al-Khudeir told reporters in Cairo. He said the 60 observers who arrived in Syria Monday were divided into five groups to visit five locations: Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa and Hama.
New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized Syria late Tuesday, saying detainees have been transferred to off-limits military sites and urging the monitors to insist on full access to all sites used for detention.
HRW's report echoes charges made by Syrian opposition members that thousands of detainees were being transferred to military sites ahead of the observers' visit.
Syrian officials have said the Arab League monitors will have unrestricted access to trouble spots but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
"Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. She said it was essential for the Arab League "to draw clear lines" regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed.
SANA said the prisoners released Wednesday did not include those with "blood on their hands."
Last month, Syrian authorities released 2,645 prisoners but activists and critics say thousands more who were picked up in the past months remain in jail.