BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Syrian security forces opened fire at protesters on Friday, killing at least 12, as hundreds of thousands filled the streets of restive cities to demonstrate against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said.
Five members of the security forces were also killed in a shooting in the city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Assad, 46, has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his heavy weaponry and army from cities, where more than 5,000 people have been killed since March – many shot during peaceful anti-government protests but also many killed in rebel attacks and local defense actions.
But the presence of Arab League monitors in hotspots across Syria since Monday has, if anything, energized the protesters.
Demonstrators determined to show the strength of their movement to the monitors on Friday threw rocks at security forces in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where troops tear-gassed the chanting crowds.
Five people were shot dead in the city of Hama and five in the city of Deraa in the south as crowds braved army and police.
“We are determined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there’s bloodshed is not important,” an activist named Abu Khaled said by telephone from the northern city of Idlib, one of the epicenters of nine months of unrest.
Most foreign media are banned from Syria and witness reports are hard to verify.
An opposition supporter named Manhal said thousands had tried to reach the main square to start a sit-in, but failed “because the security forces are firing a lot of tear gas and a few rounds of live fire.”
“People hoped the presence of monitors will prevent fierce attacks. I believe we have partial protection, I don’t think they would use live fire on us in front of the monitors.”
The Observatory reported the deaths in Hama and Deraa. It said security forces had shot dead two people and wounded 37 in Idlib province. At least two dozen were also injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said.
Amateur video from Idlib showed monitors in white baseball caps and yellow safety vests wading through a sea of protesters.
Some rushed at the observers, trying to shout a few words over the thousands chanting “The people want to liberate the country!.”
Protesters flooded the alleyways and streets of many protest centers, clapping and shouting “Peaceful, Peaceful” and “The people want you executed, Bashar!.”
Some held up banners with the names of those shot dead in protests: “We will not forget your spilled blood,” they read.
In parts of Hama, videos showed protesters fleeing the main streets as heavy gunfire erupted in the background. In one such segment, a few men rushed back, ducking in the crackle of gunfire, to carry away a man who had fallen limp in the street.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, protesters bore away a man whose leg had been shredded by what they said were “nail bombs.”
Activists in Idlib said the army had concealed its tanks in buildings on the outskirts or in dugouts.
WITHDRAWAL OF FORCES
The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset – over its makeup, its small numbers, its reliance on Syrian government logistics, and an initial assessment by its Sudanese chief that the situation was “reassuring.”
That comment was met with disbelief in the West on Wednesday but on Friday Syria’s ally Russia accepted the judgment.
“Judging by the public statements made by the chief of the mission (Sudanese general Mohammed) al-Dabi, who in the first of his visits went to the city of Homs … the situation seems to be reassuring,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on its website.
However on Friday al-Dabi, whom some link to war crimes in Darfur in the 1990s, said the reports of his comments were “unfounded and not true,” a mission statement said. It said all future statements would be in writing.
Activist video from Homs over the months has depicted a trail of death and destruction sown by the military.
“Unfortunately, reports show that the violence has continued in Syria over the past few days,” said Britain’s Foreign Office minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt.
“I urge the Syrian government to meet fully its obligations to the Arab League, including immediately ending the repression and withdrawing security forces from cities.”
In Brussels, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU “urges Syria to comply with the action plan of the Arab league in all its components” including “an immediate end of violence, the release of political prisoners (and) pulling the military out of cities.”
PARTNER FOR PEACE?
The monitoring teams have encountered a range of problems, from hostility when they turn up under army escort to random gunfire, shouting mobs and communications breakdowns.
An Arab League member from a Gulf State played down expectations for the mission, which has no peacekeeping mandate.
Even if its report turned out to be negative, it would not “act as a bridge to foreign intervention” but simply indicate that “the Syrian government has not implemented the Arab initiative,” the delegate told Reuters.
The commander of the anti-government Free Syrian Army told Reuters its fighters had been ordered to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with Arab League delegates.
“All operations against the regime are to be stopped except in a situation of self defense,” Colonel Riad al-Asaad said. “We have tried to communicate with them and we requested a meeting with the team. So far there hasn’t been any success.”
Just how widely the Turkey-based commander’s order will be heeded by anti-government gunmen inside Syria is in question. A video shot by rebels this week showed the ambush of a convoy of army buses in which, activists said, four soldiers were killed.
The FSA, formed by thousands of defectors from Assad’s army and financed by expatriate Syrians, has taken the offensive in the past three months, taking the fight to the state rather than simply trying to defend opposition strongholds.
Its decisions are potentially crucial to any peace plan.
Syria says it is fighting Islamist militants steered from abroad who have killed more than 2,000 of its troops. Activists do not dispute a significant toll among the security forces.