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Syria opposition says at least 20 killed in Homs

The video was horrific. What appeared to be the bloodied and broken bodies of four men lay in a rubble-strewn street, near downed power lines and damaged cars.

“Where are the Arabs? Where is the international community?” a man’s voice yelled over women’s screams.

Opposition activists uploaded the video to YouTube on Monday, saying it was evidence of the carnage in parts of the western Syrian city of Homs on the day that a group of about 50 Arab League observers arrived in the country to begin monitoring implementation of a regional peace initiative.

In all, antigovernment activists said, at least 20 people were killed Monday in heavy shelling and gunfire in Homs, which has been at the center of a 9-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. The authenticity of the video and the death toll could not be independently verified.

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There was no immediate comment from the government, which typically blames such bloodshed on what it describes as foreign-backed terrorists. Most international journalists have been barred from Syria, making it virtually impossible to confirm the claims of either the government or opposition activists.

League officials said some of their monitors would head to Homs on Tuesday to get a firsthand look at the situation in Syria’s third-largest city.

Government officials have said they expect the mission to confirm their contention that Syria is facing an armed insurgency with foreign backing.

The country’s main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council, has accused the Arab League of participating in a charade while the government steps up a bloody crackdown on mostly peaceful protests.

In a Christmas video message, the group’s leader, Burhan Ghalioun, called on the league to seek U.N. Security Council backing for its peace initiative “in order not to give the regime more opportunities to avoid its responsibilities and not to prolong the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Violence has escalated in recent months as the government sends tanks and troops to subdue restive neighborhoods and a growing number of military defectors join the ranks of the opposition. Some civilians have also taken up arms to defend their communities, raising fears that the country could slide into civil war.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major antigovernment protests in March, a figure disputed by the government, which says the majority of casualties were security force members.

One security force member was killed and eight injured in clashes with “armed terrorist groups” in the southern province of Dara, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said Monday.

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Many of Monday’s deaths, including the four said to be recorded in the video, were reported in the Bab Amro neighborhood of Homs, which activists say has endured days of shelling, machine-gun fire and raids by government security forces.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 14 people had died there and six in other parts of Homs. The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition group, put the day’s toll in the Homs area at 34 and said eight people had been killed in other parts of the country.

“There are no words to describe the situation today,” said an activist reached in Bab Amro, who did not want his name published out of concern for his safety. “The shelling has not stopped since 6 a.m. Whole families are being killed under the rubble of their houses.... The apartment I’m in right now had a shell dropped on the floor above us and five shells around the building.”

Residents said security forces had surrounded Bab Amro for days and were not allowing people to enter or leave the neighborhood. Some said they were running out of food, water and other essentials.

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The Arab League had threatened to go to the U.N. Security Council if Syria did not admit its observers to monitor compliance with a league-negotiated peace plan that calls for the withdrawal of security forces from the streets, the release of political prisoners and dialogue between the government and its opponents.

A league advance team arrived Thursday and was taken the next day to the scene of a double suicide car bombing targeting intelligence agencies in the capital, Damascus. The attack reportedly killed 44 people and injured 166. Opposition groups question whether the observers will have similar access to areas subject to the government’s crackdown, especially since the government is providing their security.

Syrian officials have said the observers will be free to move around the country but will not have access to sensitive military sites, which are excluded under the agreement. League officials said that the government so far has been cooperative.

In all, about 150 observers are expected in Syria by the end of the month. They will be organized into teams of 10 that will fan out across the country, including to opposition strongholds such as Dara, Idlib and Hama, according to league officials.

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The group that flew in Monday includes human rights experts, retired military officers and other representatives from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan and Mauritania, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters after meeting with them in Cairo.

Mohammed Kaabi, a member of the observer mission from the United Arab Emirates, said they would report only what they personally saw and heard.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Marrouch is a special correspondent. News assistant Amro Hassan in The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.


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