REPORTING FROM BEIRUT AND CAIRO -- Syria’s government has taken steps to comply with a regional initiative to end months of bloodshed, including pulling tanks out of cities and releasing nearly 3,500 detainees, the head of the Arab League said Monday.
But he said gunfire continued and called for a halt to the hostilities.
It was the first time that league Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby had commented on the preliminary findings of an observer mission that has drawn sharp criticism from opposition activists since it began to assess whether Syrian authorities were ending a violent crackdown against dissent.
The Arab Parliament, a league advisory body, called Sunday for the withdrawal of observers from Syria, saying their presence was providing cover for continued abuses by President Bashar Assad’s regime. Scores have been killed since the monitors arrived last week, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees. The reported death toll on Monday alone was at least 20, the group said in a statement.
Most foreign journalists are barred from Syria and the figures could not be independently verified.
"Yes, there is still shooting, and yes there are still snipers," Elaraby told reporters in Cairo, where the Arab League is based. But he said it was “hard to say who is shooting whom.”
"There must be a complete cease fire,” he said
Elaraby defended the mission, saying that tanks and other military vehicles have pulled back to the outskirts of cities, food aid has been provided and some bodies recovered.
His remarks were met with disbelief by opposition activists in some of Syria’s major trouble spots.
“Either the Arab observers are blind or they are working for the regime,” said an activist who goes by the name Abu Rami in the strife-torn city of Homs. He said there were checkpoints “full of soldiers” in the city and tanks hidden on its outskirts that could be back in the city center within minutes.
“This is not a withdrawal,” he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Syrian authorities of issuing police identification documents and uniforms to military personnel in a bid to deceive the monitors.
Activists welcomed the reported release of 3,484 detainees but said more people are arrested every day.
Syrian authorities insist they are committed to the league’s plan, which calls for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners, free access to the media and dialogue with opposition groups. They blame the continued bloodshed on what they describe as foreign-backed terrorists, who they say have killed more than 2,000 security force members.
What began in March as a mostly peaceful uprising has become more violent in some areas, where a growing number of military defectors and some civilians have taken up arms against the government’s security forces.
-- Alexandra Zavis in Beirut and Amro Hassan in Cairo. Alexandra Sandels contributed reporting from Beirut.
Photo: Members of the Arab League observers, in orange jackets, talk to Syrians in in image provided by the official Syrian news agency. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency