The chief Arab League monitor in Syria said he saw “nothing frightening” on a first visit to the battered protest hotbed of Homs but France called his remarks premature and urged Syria to guarantee his team free movement.
The second day of monitoring hit a snag when locals in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, that has been pounded by tanks in a military crackdown on popular unrest, refused to speak with the observers in the presence of a Syrian army colonel.
The monitors aborted the visit to the district, where dozens of protesters have been killed by government tanks and snipers, and armed insurgents have shot back to protect the locals.
They later returned and entered Baba Amr unescorted but had to scrap an effort to check an area where residents believed detainees were being hidden by Assad’s forces because gunfire erupted nearby, activists told Reuters by telephone.
Unobstructed access and uncensored testimony are crucial to the Arab League’s mission to verify President Bashar al-Assad is honoring a deal to withdraw tanks and troops that have attacked protesters, free prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
“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 first foray into the city of one million people, the epicenter of revolt against Assad.
“But remember, this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time,” Dabi said. The monitoring team is to number 150 in all, with most due to arrive by the end of the week.
Assad’s opponents say he turned his military forces loose on peaceful protests in March and has carried on a relentless crackdown for nine months since, driving Syria in the direction of civil war as some anti-Assad Syrians have taken up arms.
Assad says he is fighting Islamist terrorism from outside Syria. Over 2,000 soldiers and police have been killed in the past nine months, according to the government.
Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to scatter an anti-Assad rally in Hama, another major flashpoint of unrest protests to the north of Homs that Arab monitors plan to visit on Thursday. At least seven people were reported wounded.
Al Jazeera television showed gunfire, rising black smoke and men in Hama marching through the streets chanting, “Where are the Arab monitors?” One was bleeding from the neck.
Hama has suffered violence almost on a par with Homs and has a painful heritage of anti-Assad sentiment. Forces of late President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, sacked Hama in 1982 and massacred up to 10,000 people to crush an Islamist revolt.
The monitors’ setback in Homs because of resident objections to a Syrian colonel escorting them fed into opposition activist concerns that their access will be restricted, stifling unfettered communication with protesting Syrians and blinding them to the full dimensions of Assad’s violent crackdown.
The mild comments by monitoring chief Dabi disturbed anti-Assad activists and some Western officials who fear the mission could end up cloaking Damascus in relative respectability.
“The brevity of their stay did not allow them to appreciate the reality of the prevailing situation yesterday in Homs,” French Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
“The Arab League monitors must be able to return quickly to this martyred city and be able to move freely and have all necessary contact with the population.”
RUSSIA PRODS ASSAD TO OPEN UP
Russia, one of Assad’s few remaining allies and Syria’s primary weapons supplier, urged Damascus to let the observers move around the country freely.
“The mission should be able to visit any part of the country, any towns or villages, and come up with its own independent, objective opinion about what is happening and where,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
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.
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.
International journalists are mostly barred from Syria, making it difficult to confirm accounts from conflict zones.
Activists in Homs said they showed monitors some buildings riddled with bullets and mortar rounds and pointed out what they said were tanks, but had only two hours with them on Monday.
One activist, who named himself as Omar, was dissatisfied.
“We felt like we were shouting into a void. We placed our hopes in the entire Arab League,” he said. “But these monitors don’t seem to understand how the regime works, they don’t seem interested in the suffering and death people have faced.”
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 state.
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 country.
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 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 the crisis.
But there are still 15,000 Syrians in detention, according to Amnesty International.