x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Thousands rally in Homs as Arab League monitors tour flashpoint city

As tanks pull out and troops suspend attacks, protesters plead with observers to visit the Baba Amr quarter, the scene of fiercest clashes.

DAMSCUS // Tens of thousands rallied against the Syrians president Bashar Al Assad in Homs yesterday, emboldened by Arab peace monitors' first tour of the flashpoint city where activists say 34 people were killed in 24 hours.

The army suspended days of attacks and began withdrawing its tanks just as the monitors arrived, according to residents. The head of the 60-member Arab League team said his first day in Homs was "very good" and all sides were responsive.

"I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to Homs," the Sudanese general Mustafa Dabi said.

The monitors are there to ensure compliance with the Arab League's plan to halt violence against the protesters and end a nine-month crisis. After Damascus agreed to the plan in November violence increased, according to human-rights monitors and the United Nations.

In the week before the observers' arrival, government troops killed hundreds, opposition groups say.

Syrian officials insist they are fighting armed insurgents, and have predicted those claims will be confirmed by the observers.

Despite the increased violence, demonstrations have continued and activists said at least 70,000 people protested in the city yesterday, in an effort to make their case to the Arab League monitoring team.

"They are marching towards the city centre and the security forces are trying to stop them. They are firing tear gas," Rami Abdelrahman of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Some protesters shouted "we want international protection" in a video posted on YouTube, apparently showing a street encounter with the Arab League observers in which some residents argued and pleaded with them to venture further into the Baba Amr quarter, where clashes have been especially fierce.

Bursts of gunfire erupted towards the end of a video, after a resident yelled at one monitor to repeat what he had just told his headquarters.

"You were telling the head of the mission that you cannot cross to the second street because of the gunfire. Why don't you say it to us?" the man shouted, grabbing the unidentified monitor by his jacket.

The monitor said he was not authorised to make statements.

Gunshots crackled near by as two monitors and two men wearing orange vests stood amid a crowd of residents, one begging the team to "come and see; they are slaughtering us, I swear".

Activist reports just before the monitors arrived said up to a dozen tanks were leaving Baba Amr but others were being hidden to fashion a false impression of relative normality in the city while observers were around.

Al Jazeera television showed an estimated 20,000 Syrians in a square in Khalidiya, one of four districts in Homs where there has been bloodshed as rebels fight security forces using tanks.

They were whistling and shouting and waving flags, playing music over loudspeakers and clapping. Women were advised to leave because of the risk of bloodshed. But a speaker urged the men to "come down, brothers".

The protesters shouted "We have no one but God" and "Down with the regime".

An activist named Tamir said they planned to hold a sit-in in the square. "We tried to start a march down to the main market but the organisers told us to stop, it's too dangerous. No one dares go down to the main streets. So we will stay in Khalidiya and we will stay here in the square and we will not leave from here."

Mr Al Assad is facing deepening international isolation. Western powers, former ally Turkey and Arab League members have imposed economic sanctions against his regime and demanded he make sweeping political reforms.

Regime officials say political change that will result in a democracy is under way but that security forces are facing foreign-backed Islamist terrorists intent on destruction, not civil rights.

In parts of Syria, an armed insurgency is beginning to eclipse peaceful civilian protests, although activists maintain the majority of anti-regime activity is peaceful.

Many fear a slide to sectarian war between the Sunni majority, which has been a driving force of the protest movement, and the minority Alawite sect to which Mr Al Assad belongs.

The Syrian crisis has presented an intractable problem since it began in March, with pro and anti-regime groups locked in a stalemate.

Analysts say the Arab League is anxious to avoid civil war, while western powers have shown no desire to intervene militarily to break the deadlock.

Similarly, the UN Security Council is split, with Russia - a major arms supplier to Mr Al Assad - and China blocking condemnation of the Syrian regime.

Mr Al Assad's opponents remain divided and he retains a strong support base in important areas domestically - including Damascus and the second city, Aleppo - while his anti-Israel alliance with Iran has shown no sign of faltering.

Protesters in Homs yesterday appeared to take heart from the monitors' sudden presence, and were desperate to show monitors deep inside crippled demonstration neighbourhoods, rather than letting them merely see areas where life appears relatively normal.

Hundreds have been killed in Homs during the revolt, with the city a focal point for the uprising. The UN says more than 5,000 have been killed by security forces nationwide since protests began, while the Syrian authorities say 2,000 security personnel have been killed.

* With additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press