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Arab observers tour flashpoint Syrian city of Homs as HRW accuses regime of hiding detainees
BEIRUT (AP) ' Arab observers began a second day of work Wednesday, touring districts in a flashpoint central city in Syria to assess compliance with a peace plan aimed at ending nearly 10 months of bloodshed that has killed thousands of people, officials said.
The Arab observers kicked off their one month mission in the violence-wracked country with a visit on Tuesday to Homs ' the first time Syria has allowed outside monitors to the city at the heart of the anti-government uprising.
Tens of thousands of defiant Syrian protesters had thronged the streets shortly after authorities withdrew tanks from Homs, in the first sign the regime was complying with the Arab League's plan to end the 9-month-old crackdown against dissent.
A local official in Homs told The Associated Press that a team of four observers were in the city on Wednesday, touring various districts. He declined to give his details and spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Homs residents said anti-government protesters were preparing for a second day of demonstrations, despite a massive security presence in the city on Wednesday.
"I can see riot police with shields and batons on main streets and intersections, they are everywhere," said one resident, speaking over the phone. He declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, accused Syrian authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees from the observers now in the country. The New York-based international watchdog said the detainees have been transferred to off-limits military sites and urged the observers to insist on full access to all sites used for detention.
HRW's report, issued late Tuesday, echoes charges made by Syrian opposition members that thousands of detainees were being transferred to military sites ahead of the observers' visit.
Syrian officials have said the Arab monitors will have unrestricted access to trouble spots but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
"Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. She said it was essential for the Arab League "to draw clear lines" regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed.
The report quoted a Syrian security officer in Homs and other witnesses who said hundreds of detainees were moved out "in installments" from a detention facility in the city to other places of detention.
It also said the government was issuing police identification cards to military personnel and dressing soldiers in police uniforms.
The team of about 60 Arab League monitors arrived in Syria on Monday night ' the first foreign observers allowed in since March, when the uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule began. The League said a team of 12 visited Homs on Monday.
After agreeing to the League's pullback plan on Dec. 19, the regime intensified its crackdown on dissent; government troops killed hundreds in the past week and Syria was condemned internationally for flouting the spirit of the agreement.
The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March in the political violence.
Associated Press Writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.