Syria democracy activists deplore 'unprofessional' Arab mission
DAMASCUS - Democracy activists on Tuesday denounced as "unprofessional" an Arab League observer mission in Syria, after the bloc's chief admitted snipers were still active in the country despite their presence.
The mission has been mired in controversy since the first observers arrived on December 26, with activists accusing Syria's regime of keeping the monitors on a short leash as it presses on with its lethal crackdown on dissent.
And as the Arab mission came in for more flak, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad step down for overseeing "disgusting" massacres against his own people.
The unrelenting violence continued on Tuesday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed three civilians in the central city of Homs, even as state television reported observers were in the Homs region.
The monitors deployed last week to oversee implementation of a peace agreement with Assad's regime, which has been waging a bloody crackdown since March.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, in his first remarks since the observers arrived, defended the mission, saying it had secured the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of tanks from cities.
However, "there are still snipers and gunfire. There must be a total halt to the gunfire," he told reporters on Monday.
The issue would be raised with Syria's government "because the aim is to stop the shooting and protect civilians," Arabi said, adding "it is difficult to say who is firing on whom."
The Local Coordination Committees, which organise the protests, called on the League to be "objective, impartial and honest" and "announce their inability to carry out this mission alone and seek the assistance of international organisations."
"We want to tell Nabil al-Arabi that the lack of professionalism of the observers and non-compliance with their arrival times in specific places have left many people killed," said the LCC.
"The work of the observers, who were expected to monitor the implementation of the Arab plan to stop the killings, is hampered daily by the regime," it said.
"Soldiers wear police uniforms, drive repainted military vehicles and change the names of places, but this does not mean the army withdrew from cities and streets, or that the regime is applying the provisions of the Arab protocol."
The LCC estimate that at least 390 people have been killed since the observers began their mission.
Its criticism came after French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was "sceptical" about the progress of the Arab operation.
"The conditions under which this observer mission is operating should be clarified," Juppe said, questioning whether the observers really had free access to information.
The mission has also been criticised by Syrian activists and opposition figures over the choice of a former top Sudanese military commander, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, to head its observer operation.
Dabi is controversial because he served under Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
Sarkozy also weighed in on Tuesday, saying Syrians should be allowed "to freely choose their own destiny" after facing what he denounced as brutal persecution that inspires "disgust and revulsion."
He demanded the regime give the observers space to work, and called on the international community to "face up to its responsibilities" by imposing the "toughest sanctions" to force Damascus to grant humanitarian access.
Algeria expressed optimism about the Arab mission, with Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci saying it would evaluate the situation in Syria "in a more credible manner."
On the ground, SANA state news agency reported that saboteurs attacked a gas pipeline near Homs that supplies gas to power stations at Zara and Zeizun.
But the Syrian Revolution 2011 activist group, on its Facebook page, accused "Assad's gangs" of blowing up the pipeline in a warning to residents ahead of a visit to the region by the observers.
The Britain-based Observatory said meanwhile that 25 prisoners of conscience began a hunger strike to demand the Arab mission tour Adra prison near Damascus.
In northwestern Banias province, students marched through the town of Bayda, despite the heavy presence of security forces while activists raised the green, white and black flag of independence on the Al-Marqab fortress.
The Observatory also called on the Arab League chief to demand the release of Faten Rajab Fawaz, a physics professor unaccounted for since being arrested in Douma, north of Damascus, on December 26.
On the diplomatic front, Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, was to hold talks Tuesday in Portugal, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Syria's ruling Baath party announced it will hold its 11th party congress in the first week of February, when legislative polls were scheduled to have been held but have since been indefinitely postponed.
In addition, Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, reported that a Russian fleet led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would dock in the coming days at Tartus naval base.
According to the UN's latest estimates given in December, more than 5,000 people have been killed in the Assad regime's crackdown on dissent since mid-March.