BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces opened fire Thursday on tens of thousands protesting outside a mosque in a Damascus suburb, close to a municipal building that members of the Arab League monitoring mission were visiting. Activists said at least four people were killed in the shooting.
The ongoing violence, and new questions about the human rights record of the head of the Arab League monitors, are reinforcing the opposition’s view that Syria’s limited cooperation with the observers is nothing more than a farce for President Bashar Assad’s regime to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said about 20,000 people were protesting outside the Grand Mosque in the Damascus suburb of Douma when troops opened fire. Some Arab League monitors were visiting a municipal building close to the mosque, he said.
The Observatory said a total of 16 people have been shot by security forces and killed so far on Thursday, most of them in several suburbs of Damascus. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 28 people were killed. The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled as Syria bans most foreign journalists and keeps tight restrictions on the local media.
Leading opposition members have called on the Cairo-based Arab League to remove the Sudanese head of the monitoring mission to Syria because he was a senior official in the “oppressive regime” of President Omar al-Bashir, who is under an international arrest warrant on charges of committing genocide in Darfur.
The 60 Arab League monitors who began work Tuesday are the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising. They are supposed to be ensuring the regime is complying with terms of the Arab League plan to end a crackdown the U.N. says has killed more than 5,000 people since March.
The head of the mission, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, is a longtime loyalist of al-Bashir and once served as his head of Sudanese military intelligence.
Amnesty International said under al-Dabi’s command, military intelligence in the early 1990s “was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan.”
Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident, urged the Arab League to replace al-Dabi or reduce his authority because “we know his history and his shallow experience in the area.”
Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees described al-Dabi as a “senior officer with an oppressive regime that is known to repress opposition” and said there are fears he might not be neutral.
“What do you expect from the head of a monitoring mission who is accused of genocide in his own country,” asked Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group.
“SNC is deeply concerned about having Mr. al-Dabi as head of the monitoring mission given the accusations around him and we will put a motion to the Arab League requesting that he be changed,” Monajed told The Associated Press by telephone.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle demanded “unhindered access” for the Arab League observers to all key points in Syria, his ministry said Thursday.
That includes not just cities such as Homs, but “also the possibility to speak unhindered with representatives of the opposition, civil society and with prisoners of the regime,” a ministry statement said.
Westerwelle “expects from the observer mission a thorough approach and a clear, unvarnished picture of the situation,” it added.