x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Gunfire and tear gas used on activists in Hama day before monitor's visit

At least seven are wounded during a protest against President Bashar Al Assad in a city which the Arab League observers will visit today.

BEIRUT // At least seven people were wounded yesterday in the Syrian city of Hama when security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a protest against President Bashar Al Assad, just a day before a visit by Arab monitors, a rights group said.

Live pictures on Al Jazeera television showed gunfire and black smoke rising above a street in Hama as dozens of protesters chanted: "Where are the Arab monitors?"

Arab League monitors checking if Syria is ending its violent crackdown on popular unrest are due to visit Hama today. In its footage, Al Jazeera showed one man bleeding from the neck as others shouted in the background.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the protesters were heading towards Orontes square in the city centre for a sit-in at the symbolic location where demonstrations were crushed this year.

Security forces were not visible in the footage. Unarmed protesters, some masked, were heard shouting "Assad forces are shooting us!"

The protesters then began chanting: "Freedom for ever" and "We will have our revenge from you Bashar."

The details could not be independently verified.

Hama, 240km north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city was the site of the biggest massacre in the country's modern history.

Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand there. Up to 30,000 people were killed, many of them in an army bombardment or executed in the streets by forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad's' father, the late Hafez Al Assad. Parts of its old city were razed.

Twenty-nine years later, Hama demonstrators demanding the overthrow of the president still revile the memory of his father, who died in 2000 after ruling Syria for three decades.

In the AlJazeera footage, protesters began cursing the former president's soul immediately after the gunfire was heard, before rushing to hide in alleyways.

A few looked out to shout a defiant freedom call before disappearing into hiding again.

The shooting intensified, then one man shouted that snipers were operating in the area. Dozens of men squeezed themselves in an alley, chanting anti-Assad slogans.

"There is no turning back from the revolution," they shouted.

Hama was among the hardest hit cities in an escalation of military attacks against urban centres where anti-Assad protests had been held.

In August, tanks attacked Hama for 10 days, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Orontes Square.

Authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of "terrorists" according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants.

Yesterday, part of an Arab League team went to a flashpoint area in the city of Homs but some of their planned tour was blocked when gunfire erupted, activists said.

Residents of Homs's Baba Amr neighbourhood initially refused to cooperate when the monitors arrived with an army escort and the team withdrew.

But activists said a smaller group of monitors returned without the officer and were escorted by residents and activists on a tour of the turbulent district.

But the monitors could not enter an area where residents said they believed detainees were being hidden because gunfire erupted.

It was not clear where the shooting came from.

"Residents were accompanying the team to the area to show them where they believe detainees are being held when suddenly there was gunfire near the checkpoint," said Rami Abdelrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in the uprising against Mr Al Assad. Activists say 40,000 people are in detention.

Syria has been internationally isolated over his crackdown and Turkey and Jordan have called on him to quit.

The Arab League, which has expelled Syria and imposed tough sanctions, is sending observers to monitor its peace plan that Damascus has agreed to pull the army off the streets, talk to the opposition and free political prisoners.

Jordan again yesterday urged an end to the violence and for political reforms.

"Killing in Syria must stop and the promised reforms must be

implemented without delay," the Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, said in a

lecture at the Royal Jordanian National Defence College.

"Doing this will prevent outside intervention, preserve Syria's

unity and stop the bloodshed."

* Reuters, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse