REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- At 9 a.m. Thursday, residents of Duma, a suburb of Damascus,the Syrian capital, said they started gathering in front of the Grand Mosque in anticipation of the arrival of observers from the Arab League.
“Down, down with the regime,” they chanted, according to amateur video on the Internet. One man held aloft a sign saying: “Observers, your work is a sacred trust.”
As their numbers swelled, so did their excitement.
“We were thinking that the observers will come at any minute,” said a woman who took part in the demonstration. She asked to be identified only as Sally, for fear of retaliation.
About 11 a.m., several white buses arrived, and the crowd surged forward, said an activist who gave his name only as Mohammed. But when the doors swung open, the protesters saw troops carrying guns in the buses.
Witnesses said the troops opened fire into a crowd numbering in the thousands.
“The square looked like a war zone: live ammunition, people in a panic,” Sally said.
At least seven people were killed in the melee, activists said. According to a tally compiled by the opposition Local Coordination Committees, a opposition coalition, the deaths were among 38 reported across the country on the third day of the league’s mission to determine whether the Syrian government is fulfilling a promise to end its crackdown on a nine-month uprising.
The continued bloodshed has fueled opposition charges that the observer mission is a farce.
“We are concerned that the Arab initiative has failed,” said Mousab Azzawi of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “I think that it’s essential now for the Arab League to take a very responsible and ethical stand and declare that they cannot protect the civilians in Syria and ask the United Nations Security Council to take over.”
League officials have appealed for patience. About 60 observers are in Syria to monitor compliance with a regional peace initiative calling for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition. Their numbers are expected to grow to about 150.
The government says it is committed to the league’s plan and blames the persistent violence on what it describes as armed terrorist gangs supported from abroad.
On Wednesday, the government announced the release of 755 detainees. The New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Syrian authorities of moving hundreds of others to hide them from the observers.
Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it extremely difficult to confirm the accounts of any side.
-- Rima Marrouch and Alexandra Zavis
Photo: An image from a video on YouTube shows Syria security forces arresting a man Thursday in Duma, a protest hub just north of Damascus. Credit: YouTube