REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- For a few hours Tuesday, it looked like Syria might be starting to ease a violent crackdown on dissent that has turned parts of the country’s third-largest city into a virtual war zone.
Some tanks started pulling out of residential neighborhoods and huge crowds took to the streets of Homs shouting their opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad, opposition activists said.
But the activists charge that it was just a temporary ruse to mislead observers from the Arab League, who got their first look Tuesday at the city that has been at the center of a nine-month uprising.
At least some of the tanks, they said, were moved into government and school compounds, where they would be temporarily out of sight.
And before many of the marchers could reach the central square where they planned to stage a sit-in, security forces fired tear gas and live bullets into the crowd massing there and in a nearby street, witnesses and activists said.
Syrian security forces killed as many as 45 people Tuesday, including 19 in the Homs region, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition group, put the day’s toll at 35 with 14 killed in Homs.
“Nothing has changed with the arrival of observers,” said an activist reached in Homs who asked not to be identified to avoid retaliation. “The regime doesn't care about the observers or public opinion. The tanks are still in the streets. Maybe the only thing that has changed is that they are in the side streets not main streets."
Syria has barred most foreign journalists, and the opposition claims could not be independently verified. There was no immediate comment from the government.
Tuesday marked the official start of an Arab League mission to determine whether the government is upholding a promise to end the crackdown, part of a league-negotiated plan to end months of bloodshed that Syria’s neighbors fear could push the country into a civil war. More than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major anti-government protests in March, according to United Nations estimates.
Opposition activists say violence has only increased since the government endorsed the league’s peace plan early last month. Syrian officials blame the bloodshed on what they describe as armed terrorists, supported from abroad, who they allege are mixed in with demonstrators. They say most of the casualties have been security force members.
What began as a mostly peaceful uprising has turned more violent in recent months as army defectors and some civilians take up arms against the government in parts of the country. Two deadly suicide car bombings targeting intelligence agencies in the capital, Damascus, last week marked an ominous escalation in the conflict. Some opposition groups accused the government itself of orchestrating the attacks to influence the Arab League.
League officials provided few details about the first day of the mission. The head of the mission, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi, said only that the monitors had a “very good” day and “all sides were responsive,” Reuters reported.
-- Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch
Video: Amateur footage purporting to show protesters gathered in the Khalidiya district of Homs on Tuesday as a funeral procession joins their demonstration. The authenticity of the footage could not be independently verified. Credit: YouTube