Death toll mounts in Syria as thousands take to the streets

Syria-protest
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Any hope that the presence of Arab observers in Syria would bring a quick end to months of bloodshed evaporated Friday as opposition activists reported that security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrations and clashes broke out with army defectors in a suburb of the capital, Damascus.

As many as 32 people were killed across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists who organize protests and report on the violence. The dead included nine people in the central city of Hama and five in the southern city of Dara, both places where observers were reported to be present.

Opposition activists have expressed growing frustration with the observer mission, which is in Syria to monitor compliance with a regional peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and free access for international media. The activists say the mission is too small and too easily mislead by the government, which is providing security and logistic support.

League officials have said they are getting good cooperation from the government, which blames the continued bloodshed on what it describes as foreign-backed armed gangs.

Fridays are a major day for protests across the Arab world, as demonstrators spill into the streets after midday prayers. Syrian opposition groups urged supporters to show their strength by retaking city and town squares from which they have been violently repelled since the uprising began in March.

Tens of thousands were said to have turned out in the flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama, Dara and Idlib.

Witnesses said security forces fired at a large crowd in the Damascus suburb of Duma, triggering fierce clashes with army defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. Dozens of people were wounded, they said.

The clashes came despite an announcement by the Free Syrian Army that it had suspended attacks against security forces for the duration of the league’s mission, which officially began Tuesday.

“The order to stop any military operations was issued since the arrival of the observers,” said the group’s spokesman, Maj. Maher Nuaimi. “We want to show the world that these are peaceful demonstrations, that [President Bashar] Assad is a criminal, and that his army is using live ammunition against unarmed civilians.”

But he said fighters reserve the right to defend themselves and unarmed demonstrators if they come under attack.

“Today, in Duma, we were forced to provide protection for demonstrators when the army used tear gas and fire," Nuaimi said. “We created a safe passage for protesters to withdraw by providing cover fire.”

The Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for a number of assaults on military installations and convoys, raising concern that the country could slide into civil war. Earlier this week, amateur video footage was posted on YouTube purporting to show defectors ambushing a convoy of military buses, an attack in which activists said four soldiers were killed.

Nuaimi said leaders of the Free Syrian Army had been trying unsuccessfully to contact the league’s monitors.

“No one from the Arab League has reached out to us,” he said. “We are an element of the revolution and we believe that the head of the mission should coordinate with us the same way they have coordinated with security forces and the Syrian government. It is crucial because we can provide the mission with information regarding mass graves and details about the methods used by the regime to suppress protests.”

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March. The government disputes the figure and says most of the casualties have been security force members.

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-- Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch

Photo: This image from an amateur videotape shot on Friday purports to show protesters gathered in the city of Hama for a rally against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. Credit: Associated Press/ Ugarit News Group via APTN

 
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