Syrian soldiers fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air to disperse a crowd of tens of thousands of protesters who gathered in Homs as Arab League observers visited the city to monitor violence.
About 70,000 protesters rallied in the city after the observers arrived yesterday, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by telephone today. There were no immediate reports of casualties. At least 16 people were killed yesterday, mostly in the countryside outside the capital Damascus, Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights, said.
Syria withdrew tanks yesterday from the streets of Homs, where fighting had intensified in the past few days and is keeping armored forces in the suburbs, Merei and Qurabi said. The government freed 755 people today, state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.
“This is a calculation to muddy the waters, to stretch things out,” said David Butter, director for the Middle East at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. “Chances of Arab League observers defusing the whole situation, creating some assurance among the population that they are safe is pretty minimal.”
Syria agreed on Dec. 19 to allow a monthlong visit by Arab League observers after the organization imposed sanctions and threatened to seek intervention by the United Nations. More than 5,000 people have died since the unrest started mid-March, according to the UN. The country has moved closer to civil war as soldiers defect and take up arms against the government.
“It’s unlikely that the regime will switch off the violence from the inside, it will only be a short-term benefit,” Butter said in a telephone interview today. The Syrian regime’s end goal is survival and President Bashar al-Assad is calculating that the Arab League won’t be too critical of his government, he said. Pushing ahead with the troop withdrawals, allowing media access, freeing detainees and allowing the observers to produce a report on torture would “embolden” the opposition, he said.
Observers arrived in Homs at 10 a.m. yesterday and met with local government officials, Qurabi said. They visited the central neighborhoods and weren’t allowed in the Baba Amr district, where government forces are keeping some tanks, he said.
Human Rights Watch said the Syrian government transferred “hundreds” of detainees to military sites that are off-limits to the observers.
“Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown,” Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement on the group’s website.
The U.S. government decried what it called a deliberate decision to escalate attacks against protesters just before the arrival of international monitors.
“We obviously condemn this escalation of violence,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday in Washington. “They saw an opportunity prior to these Arab League monitors arriving.”
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition movement, said in a Dec. 25 statement that 4,000 Syrian soldiers were massing at Homs and called for the league to urgently send observers there.
The first group of 50 observers plans to visit Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Hama and Daraa, Arab League Ambassador Mohamed El-Fateh El-Naserey said yesterday in a telephone interview from his Ankara office. A second group will arrive in Syria shortly, he said. As many as 500 monitors are expected to be deployed.
The first team of observers includes monitors from Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Oman, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania, El-Naserey said.
Assad has blamed the unrest on foreign provocateurs and his forces have used tanks, armored vehicles and artillery to crush the uprising.
Bloomberg is unable to verify reports of violence as the Syrian government restricts foreign media access in the country and places curbs on local journalists.