Syria tanks fire, 23 die in fighting as monitors awaited
Mon Dec 26, 2011 5:59pm GMT
* More killing reported in cities of Homs, Hama
* Arab League monitors to visit Homs Tuesday
* No sign of Assad starting to implement peace plan (Adds tank fire,
monitors on way, soldiers and defectors killed)
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Dec 26 (Reuters) - At least 23 people were killed as Syrian tank
forces battled opponents of President Bashar al-Assad in Homs on Monday,
residents said, ahead of a planned visit by Arab League monitors to verify
whether he is ending a violent crackdown on unrest.
Four army defectors were killed by security forces in a town near the
Turkish border, an activist network said. Nine soldiers killed in fighting
in Homs were buried, state media reported.
A day before observers were to have their first look at the city at the
heart of a nine-month-old revolt, there was no sign of Assad carrying out a
plan agreed with the League to halt an offensive against protests and start
talks with the opposition.
Amateur video posted on the Internet by activists showed three tanks in the
streets next to apartment blocks in the Baba Amr district. One fired its
main gun and another appeared to launch mortar rounds.
Video showed mangled bodies lying in pools of blood on a narrow street.
Power lines had collapsed and cars were burnt and blasted, as if shelled by
tank or mortar rounds.
"What's happening is a slaughter," said Fadi, a resident living near the
flashpoint Baba Amr neighbourhood. He said it was being hit with mortar
shells and heavy machinegun fire.
An armed insurgency is increasingly eclipsing civilian protests in Syria.
Now many fear a slide toward a sectarian war pitting the Sunni Muslim
majority, the driving force of the protest movement, against minorities that
have mostly stayed loyal to the government, particularly the Alawite sect to
which Assad belongs. Fighting in Homs has intensified since a double suicide
bombing in Damascus on Friday that killed 44 people.
Fadi told Reuters via Skype that trenches the army dug around the
neighbourhood in recent weeks had trapped residents and rebel fighters.
"They are benefiting from trenches. Neither the people nor the gunmen or
army defectors are able to flee. The army has been descending on the area
for the past two days."
Other residents said the fighters have still been able to inflict casualties
on the army.
"The violence is definitely two-sided," said a Homs resident who named
himself only as Mohammed to protect his safety. "I've been seeing ambulances
filled with wounded soldiers passing by my window in the past days. They're
getting shot somehow."
Parts of Homs were defended by the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors
from the regular armed forces, who say they have tried to protect civilians.
"There are many casualties," activist Yazen Homsi told the Avaaz opposition
group from Homs. "It is very difficult to access them and provide treatment
as a result of the heavy shelling throughout the neighbourhood."
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented names of
those reported killed in Monday's clashes. It also reported three people
killed on the outskirts of Hama, north of Homs, as security forces fired on
It said explosions went off in Douma, a Damascus suburb, as the army clashed
with rebel fighters. In a town near the Turkish border, four army defectors
were killed by security forces, the Observatory reported.
GOVERNMENT TRANSPORT FOR MONITORS
France said it was "deeply worried by the continued deterioration in Homs"
and urged Syria to allow monitors entry.
The initial 50 of 150 Arab League monitors left Cairo on their way to Syria
on Monday, and some were due to go to Homs on Tuesday, a source at the
group's headquarters in Cairo told Reuters. Their job will be to assess
whether Assad is withdrawing tanks and troops from Syria's third largest
city as promised.
The first group of about 50 Arab League monitors will be divided into five
10-man teams going to five locations.
The head of the team, the Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, told Reuters that
Damascus had been cooperative thus far.
"Our Syrian brothers are cooperating very well and without any restrictions
so far," he said.
But he added that Syrian forces would be providing transportation for the
observers - a move which may anger the anti-Assad opposition and spark
accusations of censorship.
Arab delegates said they would maintain the upper hand.
"The element of surprise will be present," said monitor Mohamed Salem
al-Kaaby from the United Arab Emirates.
"We will inform the Syrian side the areas we will visit on the same day so
that there will be no room to direct monitors or change realities on the
ground by either side."
The mission's mandate is to confirm that the Syrian government is executing
the Arab League initiative by withdrawing the military from cities,
releasing prisoners and allowing Arab and allowing international media to
Syria has barred most foreign journalists since the revolt began, making it
hard to verify reports of events on the ground.
Despite the scenes of ravaged streets, Syrian state television has been
regularly showing other areas of Homs, a city of one million, looking
The United Nations says at least 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the
revolt, inspired by other Arab uprisings this year that have toppled three
dictators, broke out in March. An estimated one-third of deaths have
occurred in and around Homs.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed Islamists
who they say have killed 2,000 members of the security forces. After six
weeks of stalling, Damascus signed a protocol this month to admit the Arab
A source inside the opposition Syrian National Council said a growing number
of its members are pushing to openly endorse armed insurrection against the
But they faced resistance from those in diplomatic contact with Western
powers and calling for U.N. support -- such as creation of safe havens to
protect protesting civilians.
Assad, 46, succeeded his father in 2000 to carry on 41 years of family rule.
He has responded to popular calls to step down with a mixture of force and
promises of reform, announcing an end to a state of emergency and promising
a parliamentary election in February.
Arab League mission chief Dabi reached Damascus on Saturday while the
capital was still reeling from suicide bombings the day before that killed
44, marking an ominous escalation of the violence in the heart of the Syrian
Leading opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council say they
suspect Assad's government carried out the Damascus bombings itself to prove
to the world that Syria is facing indiscriminate violence by militant
Islamists and to intimidate the work of monitors.
"The explosions in Damascus carried the signature of the Syrian intelligence
forces," the SNC's Paris-based president Burhan Ghalioun told Asharq Alawsat
newspaper. "But these terrorist operations will not discourage people from
continuing the revolution to topple this regime no matter the sacrifices."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Ayman Samir and Marwa
Awad in Cairo and Ayat Basma in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing
by Mark Heinrich and Matthew Jones)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Mon Dec 26 2011 - 14:57:53 EST