Any hope that the presence of Arab League observers in Syria might bring an end to the bloodshed all but evaporated Friday as opposition activists reported that security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters and clashes broke out with army defectors in a suburb of Damascus, the capital.
As many as 35 people were killed across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of activists that organizes protests and reports on the violence. The dead included nine people in the central city of Hama and five in the southern city of Dara, both places where observers were said to be present.
Opposition activists have expressed growing frustration with the observer mission, which is in Syria to monitor compliance with a regional peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and free access for journalists.
The activists say the Arab League team is too small and too easily mislead by the government, which is providing security and logistical support to the observers. The selection of a Sudanese general, who once headed a military intelligence branch accused of human rights abuse, has also raised concern.
Syrian officials insist they are implementing the peace plan.
Friday’s demonstrations appeared to be among the largest and most numerous in weeks. Syrian opposition groups urged their supporters to show their strength by retaking city and town squares from which they have been violently expelled since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March.
Tens of thousands of people across the country spilled into the streets after midday prayers, they said. The claim appeared to be borne out by amateur video on the Internet showing huge, boisterous crowds, especially in the central province of Homs and the northwestern province of Idlib.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said government supporters also staged “massive” rallies in Damascus and several other areas.
Most foreign journalists are barred from Syria, making it almost impossible to verify opposition and government claims.
In the Damascus suburb of Duma, a group of observers waded into a massive crowd gathered in front of the Grand Mosque, according to amateur video. But when they weren’t there, witnesses and activist said, gunfire erupted and ignited fierce clashes with the Free Syrian Army. Dozens of people were reported wounded.
Emboldened by the presence of monitors, women and children took part in some of the protests in the city of Homs, which has seen some of the worst violence, residents said.
“Today, people seem to feel safer,” said an activist reached in the city’s Khalidiya district, who was still too afraid to be identified. “They are using tear gas. As one of my friends told me … ‘When I saw the tear gas canister being thrown at me, I wanted to embrace it because I miss those things. For the past weeks, I saw only bullets.’”
Elsewhere in the city, however, there were reports of shots fired at demonstrators. Security forces also opened fire on thousands of protesters gathered in Hama.
“We thought that since the observers are in town, they will not use live ammunition,” said a man who took part in a protest in the city’s Hamadiya district. He said he saw the observers’ cars drive by as he was marching. When they were out of sight, he said, “the heavy fire started. … It’s a big disappointment.”
What began as a mostly peaceful uprising in March has turned violent in recent months, as a growing number of military defectors and some civilians take up arms to defend their communities, raising fear that the country will slide into civil war. Defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army have claimed responsibility for deadly assaults on military installations and personnel.
Hoping to disprove the government’s claims that it is facing foreign-backed terrorists, the Free Syrian Army said Friday that it had suspended attacks against security forces for the duration of the league’s one-month mission, which officially began Tuesday.
“We want to show the world that these are peaceful demonstrations, that Assad is a criminal, and that his army is using live ammunition against unarmed civilians,” said the group’s spokesman, Maj. Maher Nuaimi, who was reached in Turkey.
But he said fighters reserve the right to defend themselves and unarmed demonstrators if they come under attack. As recently as Wednesday, amateur video was posted on YouTube purporting to show defectors ambushing a convoy of military buses, an attack that activists said killed four soldiers.
Nuaimi said leaders of the Free Syrian Army had been trying unsuccessfully to contact monitors.
“No one from the Arab League has reached out to us,” he said. “We are an element of the revolution and we believe that the head of the mission should coordinate with us the same way they have coordinated with security forces and the Syrian government. It is crucial because we can provide the mission with information regarding mass graves and details about the methods used by the regime to suppress protests.”
The Arab League mission has been controversial from the start, not least because of comments by its leader, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi. He was heavily criticized for an interview in which he described conditions in Homs as “reassuring” and “nothing frightening.” The same day, activists posted video on the Internet that appeared to show observers taking cover from gunfire and meeting with victims of the crackdown.
The Arab League later said the comments attributed to Dabi were “baseless and not true,” without making it clear whether it was maintaining that he had misspoken or had been incorrectly quoted.
Marrouch is a special correspondent