* Residents want observers to see signs of "slaughter"
* Fears of "whitewash" by mission headed by Sudanese general
* Syria releases 755 detainees "with no blood on hands" (Adds prisoners
freed, monitors to visit other cities, detail)
By Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Arab League monitors checking if Syria is ending
a military crackdown on popular unrest said they saw "nothing frightening"
in an initial visit to the protest hotbed of Homs, although a longer
investigation would be needed.
Given the brief and limited nature of the monitors' tour on Tuesday, the
comment by their chief may alarm opposition activists who fear the mission
could end up cloaking Damascus in respectability, whitewashing President
Bashar al-Assad's record.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces
killed 15 people across the country on Tuesday, six of them in Homs. It said
34 were killed the day before.
"Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening,"
Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, chief of the monitoring contingent, told
Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
"The situation seemed reassuring so far," he said on Wednesday after his
team's foray into the city of one million people, the epicentre of
anti-Assad upheaval inspired by the fall of several other Arab autocrats in
uprisings this year.
"Yesterday was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not see tanks but we
did see some armoured vehicles. But remember this was only the first day and
it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long
Syria's Addounia television quoted Dabi as saying "Yes...we saw gunmen in
the city of Homs." It gave no further details.
Monitors were to pay a second visit to Homs on Wednesday and also go for the
first time to the city of Hama, another hotspot of unrest, the Idlib region
on the northwest border with Turkey where anti-Assad insurgents have battled
security forces, and Deraa in the south, the cradle of the nine-month-old
Activists say about a third of the estimated 5,000 people killed in unrest
in Syria since March died in Homs. Dozens have been killed in the past week
alone and thousands arrested in the months before the 22-state Arab League
was invited in.
Assad says he is fighting an insurgency by armed terrorists who have killed
2,000 soldiers and police.
State television on Wednesday flashed news that Syria has freed 755 people
detained in the unrest "whose hands were not stained with Syrian blood".
Releasing detainees is part of Assad's pact with the Arab League to defuse
But there are still 15,000 Syrians in detention, according to Amnesty
Dabi led the first group of monitors to Homs escorted by Syrian authorities.
They were shown destruction in the district of Baba Amr, where tanks fired
into residential areas the day before, according to amateur video recorded
Video reports, which cannot be independently verified, have shown parts of
Homs looking like a war zone. Constant machinegun and sniper fire is audible
and corpses are mangled by blasts.
International journalists are mostly barred from Syria, making it difficult
to confirm accounts from conflict zones.
HOMS RESIDENTS UNIMPRESSED WITH MONITORS
Homs residents were dissatisfied with the monitors' visit.
"I felt they didn't really acknowledge what they'd seen--maybe they had
orders not to show sympathy. But they didn't seem enthusiastic about hearing
people tell their stories," said Baba Amr resident and activist Omar.
"We felt like we were shouting into a void. We placed our hopes in the
entire Arab League. But these monitors don't seem to understand how the
regime works, they don't seem interested in the suffering and death people
Activists said they showed monitors buildings riddled with bullets and
mortar rounds and pointed out what they said were tanks but only had two
hours to give them a tour. Dabi said his team did not see tanks but they did
see some armoured vehicles.
The monitors represent the first international intervention on the ground in
Syria since the revolt began. Protesters hope what they report will nudge
the world into action against Assad.
But the very choice of the Sudanese general to head the League mission has
dismayed activists, who note Sudan's own defiance of a war crimes tribunal
over the Darfur conflict.
The Arab League says Dabi has military and diplomatic expertise needed to
lead its unprecedented intervention in the internal crisis of a member
But international human rights activists critical of Sudan's government say
it is all but impossible to imagine a Sudanese general involved in Darfur
ever recommending intervention to halt human rights abuses in a fellow Arab
WASHINGTON WEIGHS IN
The U.S. State Department condemned an escalation of violence in Homs before
the monitors' deployment.
"We have seen horrific pictures of indiscriminate fire, including by heavy
tank guns, and heard reports of dozens of deaths, thousands of arrests, as
well as beatings of peaceful protesters," spokesman Mark Toner said.
If monitors were impeded "the international community will consider other
means", Toner said.
Russia also urged that the monitors be given unfettered access to people and
places worst affected by Assad's crackdown.
Emboldened by the observers' first visit, about 70,000 Homs protesters
marched towards the city centre on Tuesday, where security forces fired
shots and teargas at them, activists said.
The army pulled some tanks out before the monitors arrived, in what the
activists called a ploy to show the city was calm.
"We want international protection!" residents shouted at the monitors in a
video posted on YouTube.
Armed insurgency seems to be overtaking peaceful protest. Many fear
full-blown fighting between Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, driving the
protest movement, and minorities loyal to the government, particularly
Assad's Alawite sect.
Western powers have shown no desire to intervene militarily in a volatile
region of Middle East conflict. The U.N. Security Council is split, with
Russia and China against interference.
Assad's opponents appear split on aims and tactics. He has strong support in
major areas, including Damascus and the second city Aleppo, and maintains an
anti-Israel alliance with Iran. (Additional reporting by Ayman Samir;
Editing by Mark Heinrich)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Wed Dec 28 2011 - 17:44:33 EST