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Activists: Syrian troops kill more protesters despite monitors on mission to stop crackdown
BEIRUT (AP) ' Arab League monitors gathered accounts about the Syrian government's crackdown on dissent in the central city of Homs Wednesday as fresh violence flared just dozens of miles away. Activists said troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, killing at least six.
Though President Bashar Assad's regime has made concessions to the observers, including the release of nearly 800 prisoners, the military was pressing ahead with a campaign to put down mostly peaceful protests.
In the two days since the Arab monitors arrived, activists said troops have killed at least 39 people, including the six shot in the central city of Hama on Wednesday. The continued bloodshed ' and comments by an Arab League official praising Syria's cooperation ' have fueled concerns by the Syrian opposition that the Arab mission is a farce and a distraction from the ongoing killings.
The opposition suspects Assad is only trying to buy time and forestall more international sanctions and condemnation.
"This mission has absolutely no mandate, no authority, no teeth," said Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group. "The regime does not feel obliged to even bring down the number of casualties a day."
The 60 monitors ' the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month uprising ' are supposed to be ensuring the regime is complying with terms of a plan to end a crackdown the U.N. says has killed more than 5,000 people since March.
The plan, which Syria agreed to on Dec. 19, demands that the regime remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.
On Wednesday, the government released 755 prisoners following a report by Human Rights Watch accusing authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees from the monitors. It was the second concession in two days.
The army on Monday pulled some of its troops back from the central city of Homs after bombarding it for days and killing scores of people. Monitors who were allowed into the city were met by tens of thousands of protesters who called for Assad's execution.
Images obtained by The Associated Press from the city in the days leading up to the monitors' visit show army defectors inside a bombed-out building, firing machine guns through gaping holes in a wall.
In another, a huge crowd fills the street for a nighttime rally behind a giant banner of the uprising's revolutionary flag. A row of women wear the flags and a large sign overhead reads: "All the doors are closed except your door, God."
There are also photos of wounded civilians lying on a floor in pools of blood, and being treated with crude medical equipment. Another shows an alleyway with blood smeared on a wall and pooled on the ground.
At a Dec. 21 protest, a banner reads: "To the Arab League: Your initiative cannot protect us from death." Young girls with headbands that read "Leave!" and sashes calling for the "execution of Bashar" protest under banners with "Freedom and Dignity."
The images show the intensity of the opposition against Assad's regime, which brought on the offensive against Homs that began on Friday and lasted until monitors arrived Tuesday to start their one-month mission with a visit to the city.
Several from the team of 12 stayed in Homs overnight and they continued to work there Wednesday. There was no word on whether other teams went to different cities.
According to officials and activists, the monitors went to several districts of Homs, including trouble spots in Baba Amr, Bab Sbaa and Inshaat.
Amateur video posted on the Internet showed the head of the team, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, walking in Baba Amr and stopping to talk to people. In one video, he is seen talking to a man who accuses the regime of killing his 64-year-old brother, a former official of Assad's ruling Baath party, and his wife, and then blaming it on armed gangs.
"Your excellency, they are killing influential people to draw a violent reaction from people," he tells al-Dabi.
Some amateur video showed the orange-jacketed observers in a white car, surrounded by people shouting for Assad's downfall and apparently objecting to the presence of a Syrian military escort in the car with them.
Other video showed the monitors visiting women and children who purportedly lost family members in recent violence. There were no reports of firing on protesters in Homs during the observers visit on Wednesday. Troops did open fire on the crowds on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the monitors are expected to visit Hama, Idlib and Daraa ' all centers of the uprising.
In Hama, several thousand protesters were trying to reach the city's main Assi square to stage a sit-in amid a heavy security presence when troops opened fire with bullets and tear gas to disperse them, activists said.
Hama-based activist Saleh Abu Kamel said he had the names of six people who were killed and many others wounded. The number could not be immediately confirmed. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees confirmed the protests and the shooting, giving conflicting casualty figures.
Violence erupted in several other parts of Syria, including the ambush killings of four soldiers by a group of military defectors, activists said.
Despite the ongoing crackdown, an Arab League official said cooperation by Syrian authorities with the monitors was "reassuring."
"The Syrian side is facilitating everything," Adnan Issa al-Khudeir told reporters in Cairo. He said the 60 observers who arrived in Syria Monday were divided into five groups to visit five locations: Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa and Hama.
Monajed, the SNC official, said the remarks were "unfortunate."
"They reflect the irresponsible behavior and attitude toward the massacres and atrocities committed by Assad's forces in the country," he said.