Vast Syrian crowds demand Arab League observers' help

Emboldened protesters turn out in hundreds of thousands to put new pressure on Assad

Jerusalem

In the largest demonstrations for months, as many as a million Syrians poured on to the country's streets yesterday, determined to draw their plight to the attention of Arab League observers who some fear will turn a blind eye to atrocities by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The protesters who swarmed on to public squares and roads from the country's most northerly cities to its southern border towns appeared emboldened by the presence of up to 100 monitors.

About 250,000 demonstrated in the central province of Hama, with a similar number in Idlib, near the Turkish border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The organisation put the total number on the streets at nearly one million, in the biggest display of anti-government sentiment since at least July. In Homs, the city at the heart of the revolution, television footage showed dancing protesters chanting: "Revolution of glory and freedom Syria".

"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 Abu Hisham, an activist in Hama.

But, even with the Arab League team present, the violence continued, and appeared to take a more sinister turn. The Observatory claimed to have spoken to two people injured when a nail bomb was used by security forces to disperse a 70,000-strong demonstration in the Damascus suburb of Duma.

Live rounds and tear gas were also reported to have been fired on the protesters. With press access in the country severely restricted, such reports are difficult to verify.

Five were reported to have been shot dead when security forces opened fire on protesters in the southern city of Deraa, and another five were killed in Hama, with a total of 20 dead in the clashes across the country, according to the human rights group. Five people were snatched by security forces in an overnight raid in Homs, it claimed.

The Syrian government had posted snipers on rooftops and deployed its forces at trouble spots after opposition groups called for mass demonstrations to mark the first Friday prayers of the Arab League mission.

The team is in Syria to verify the government's compliance with an Arab League plan to end the violent crackdown, which includes the removal of tanks from the streets.

Human rights groups have accused the government of hiding artillery from observers. Yesterday activists in Idlib said tanks had been concealed. "They have moved the tanks out of main streets," said a member of the opposition Local Co-ordination Committee.

Comments from the head of the monitoring group, the Sudanese general, Mohamed Mustafa al-Dabi, who said he saw "nothing frightening" during his visit to Homs this week, have raised concerns among the opposition.

"70,000 people were shot with tear gas as they approached Clock Square. How can you not see anything?" said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

While the remarks by General Dabi met with disbelief in the West, the Russian foreign ministry yesterday described his statement as "reassuring".

The comments came as government forces opened fire on demonstrators after Friday prayers in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the southern city of Deraa and elsewhere. In an indication of the diminishing levels of confidence in the Arab League team, protesters in Damascus chanted: "The monitors are witnesses who don't see anything."

The Local Co-ordination Committees said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab observers began their one-month mission on Tuesday.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said that violence was continuing. "It's not only a matter of deploying the monitors," she said. "It's a matter of the Syrian government living up to its commitments to withdraw heavy weapons from the cities and to stop the violence everywhere."

Meanwhile, the Turkey-based commander of the anti-government Free Syrian Army said he had ordered fighters to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with the monitors.

Colonel Riad al-Asaad said his forces had so far been unable to talk to them. "I issued an order to stop all operations from the day the committee entered Syria last Friday," Colonel Asaad said.

Arab League: The Observers

The Arab League mission in Syria descended into farce almost as soon as it began. Despite video footage showing Syrian forces continuing their bloody crackdown on protesters in Homs on Wednesday, the man overseeing the League's observation of the unrest described the situation as "calm", adding "there were no clashes".

Mustafa al-Dabi, a Sudanese general, was head of military intelligence following the 1989 coup led by Omar al-Bashir (subsequently accused of war crimes). It is alleged that General Dabi encouraged a brutal crackdown on rebels. He also cultivated Sudan's links with Syria.

Even as General Dabi spoke on Wednesday, the body of a child allegedly murdered by Assad's forces was placed on the bonnet of a white Arab League 4x4. He went on to say that there was "nothing frightening" in the town.

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