Tuesday, December 27, 2011

More than 40 Dead in Syria as Besieged Homs Heavily Shelled

Heavy gunfire killed more than 30 people in Syria's besieged city of Homs on Monday as newly arriving Arab League observers were urged to head immediately to one of the country's most serious hot spots.

Media reports said an initial group of 50 observers arrived in Syria Monday evening to oversee a deal aimed at ending a bloody crackdown on anti-regime dissent, while other reports said the monitors' arrival was yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, a man identifying himself as Mustashar Mahjoub and claiming to be a member of an advance team of Arab observers appeared on Al-Arabiya TV and described the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent as "genocide."

The regime is “taking revenge on its people,” the man said, adding that the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amro was being "shelled by heavy artillery."

Earlier on Monday, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, reported that security forces shot and wounded a member of the Arab team of observers, without mentioning his name or the site of the shooting.

However, the Arab League later denied the report, saying that “after contacting the head of the team of observers in Damascus, General Mohammed al-Dabi, it appeared that the report was untrue and that all the members of the team of observers were safe.”

On the ground, more than 40 people were shot dead at the hands of security forces across Syria, most of them in Homs which was "heavily bombarded" throughout the day, according to the LCC.

In a statement received by Agence France Presse, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "rocket fire and heavy machineguns in the Baba Amro quarter killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens."

"The situation is frightening and the shelling is the most intense of the past three days," it said.

Six civilians died in other parts of the central Syrian city, while another three, including a 14-year-old boy, were shot dead when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Khattab in neighboring Hama province.

On Sunday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said Homs was under siege and facing an "invasion" from some 4,000 troops deployed near the city that has become a focal point of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

"The observers must head immediately to the martyrs' district of Baba Amro to stop the assassinations and meet with the Syrian people so that they witness the crimes being perpetrated by the Syrian regime," the Observatory said on Monday.

That demand was echoed by France.

"The Damascus authorities must imperatively, in accordance with the Arab League plan, allow observers access this afternoon to the city of Homs, where the violence is particularly bloody," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said the observer "mission has freedom of movement in line with the protocol" Syria signed with the Arab League last week.

Under that deal, the observers are to be banned only from sensitive military installations.

Ironically, the Observatory said the authorities had changed road signs in another hot spot, Idlib province, to confuse the observers, and urged them to make contact with human rights activists on the ground.

An advance team of Arab monitors arrived on Thursday to pave the way for the observer mission to oversee the deal aimed at ending the crackdown, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 5,000 people since March.

Opposition groups have said the observers must stop their work if they are blocked by the authorities from traveling to places like Homs.

"We hold the Arab League and the international community accountable for the massacres and bloodshed committed by the regime in Syria," the SNC said.

General al-Dabi, a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer who is heading the observer mission, arrived in Damascus on Sunday evening, a source told AFP.

In a meeting with AFP in Khartoum last week, the 63-year-old Dabi distributed a curriculum vitae that outlined a hardcore military background, including three years as chief of military operations against the insurgency in what is now South Sudan.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the observers to vindicate his government's contention that the violence is the work of "armed terrorists."

Western governments and rights watchdogs blame Assad's regime for the bloodshed.

Opposition leaders charge that Syria agreed to the mission after weeks of prevarication in a "ploy" to head off a threat by the 22-member League to go to the U.N. Security Council over the crackdown.

Muallem met the advance team of Arab League officials on Saturday, in talks his spokesman called "positive."

The observers will eventually number between 150 and 200, Arab League officials say.

The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 that calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

But since signing the agreement, the Assad regime has been accused of intensifying its crackdown.

The SNC and rights activists have charged that the government was behind twin suicide bombings in Damascus on Friday that killed 44 people.

Assad's regime blamed the attacks on "terrorist organizations," including al-Qaida, although it has not said how it reached the conclusion.

The SNC said "the Syrian regime, alone, bears all the direct responsibility for the two terrorist explosions."

It said the government was trying to create the impression "that it faces danger coming from abroad and not a popular revolution demanding freedom and dignity."

Violence continued through the weekend, with security forces pounding Baba Amro with mortar and heavy machinegun fire on Sunday, killing an undetermined number of people and wounding 124, the Observatory said.

The plight of Syrians was a focus of Pope Benedict XVI's Christmas Day prayers.

"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts ... May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed," the pontiff told pilgrims in Vatican City.



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