Arab observers visit more Syrian protest hubs
DAMASCUS - Arab monitors headed to more Syrian protest hubs Thursday after the flashpoint city of Homs as world powers warned Damascus not to hinder their mission to reveal the truth about the crackdown on dissent.
More bloodshed was reported as army defectors killed at least four soldiers in the southern province of Daraa, two civilians were shot dead in Homs' Baba Amro quarter, another in Hama and one during protests in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday.
Also reported were arrests and gunshot wounds in Idlib province and more shooting injuries, with three suspected fatalities, in a village near Damascus.
Accusations that the regime was trying to hide the facts from the monitors were punctuated by France, which charged the team was not being allowed to see what was happening in Homs as repression continued.
Those concerns were highlighted when Baba Amro residents refused to allow observers in because they were accompanied by an army officer, the Observatory said. The standoff ended when the officer withdrew.
The residents asked the monitors to "come and see the wounded people and the parents of the martyrs, and not members of the (ruling) Baath party," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The monitors also visited Homs' Bab Sebaa quarter, where the Observatory said the regime had organised a parade in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
The observers were next due to visit Daraa, cradle of the nine-month anti-regime protests, the northern provinces of Hama and Idlib and around Damascus.
"As of Wednesday evening, and from Thursday at dawn, the observers will deploy in Idlib and Hama and in Daraa," mission chief General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi said.
The veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer said observers would also fan out 50-80 kilometres (30-50 miles) around Damascus.
The observers arrived in Syria at the weekend and on Tuesday visited Homs, which has been besieged by government forces for several months.
Dabi said the visit to Homs had been "good" and added more observers would join the mission, which now numbers 66 people.
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Tuesday's visit had been too brief and insufficiently revealing.
"A few Arab League observers were able to be briefly present in Homs yesterday. Their presence did not prevent the continuing of the bloody crackdown in this city, where large demonstrations were violently repressed, leaving about 10 dead," he said.
"The brevity of their visit did not allow them to understand the reality of the situation in Homs. The Arab League observers must be allowed to return without delay to this martyr city, to travel everywhere in it freely and to have the necessary contact with the public."
Washington insisted that the monitors have unfettered access to members of the opposition.
"It was just day one; it was one small area of Homs," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters when asked to comment on Dabi, who revealed nothing negative after the first visit to Homs.
"We need to let this mission get up and running, let them do their job and then let them give their judgment.
"It's important that they have access to all areas in order to carry out a full investigation," he said.
It is also important for the monitors to observe "as many of the protests as possible, engage with as many members of the opposition as possible," Toner said.
The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 that calls for the withdrawal of security forces from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.
Valero said "the international community will be reassured when the violence has stopped, when the army had returned to barracks, when the political prisoners are freed and when foreign journalists will receive visas to go to Syria."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged maximum freedom for the observer mission.
"We constantly work with the Syrian leadership calling on it to fully cooperate with observers from the Arab League and to create work conditions that are as comfortable and free as possible," he said.
Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi has said the "mission has freedom of movement in line with the protocol" Syria signed with the Arab League.
However, the deal bans observers from sensitive military sites.
On Wednesday, Syria freed 755 prisoners who had been involved in anti-regime unrest but have "no blood on their hands," state television said.
In November, authorities said they freed more than 4,300 detainees.
In other developments, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the "killing in Syria must stop, and promised reforms must be implemented without delay.
"Doing this will prevent outside intervention, preserve Syria's unity and stop the bloodshed," he said.
The UN estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since protests against Assad's regime began in mid-March.
The government blames the violence on "armed terrorist" groups.