Arab League: Syrian tanks withdraw, killings go on

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces are still killing anti-government protesters despite the presence of foreign monitors in the country, the head of the Arab League said Monday. But he insisted the observer mission has yielded important concessions from the Damascus regime, such as the withdrawal of heavy weapons from cities.

Syria’s opposition cautioned the observers not to be taken in by President Bashar Assad’s government, which has unleashed a withering military assault to crush a 9-month-old uprising. Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the mission, saying it is simply giving Assad cover for his crackdown.

“The Arab League has fallen victim to the regime’s typical traps, in which observers have no choice but to witness regime-staged events, and move about the country only with the full knowledge of the regime,” said a statement by the Local Coordinating Committees, an umbrella group of activists.

“This has rendered the observers unable to work or move independently or in a neutral manner,” the group said.

The U.N. estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in mid-March. Activists say that in the week since the observers started their work in Syria on Dec. 27, hundreds have been slain. The LCC put the death toll at more than 390 people since Dec. 21.

“Yes, there is still shooting and yes there are still snipers,” Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo. “Yes, killings continue. The objective is for us to wake up in the morning and hear that no one is killed. The mission’s philosophy is to protect civilians, so if one is killed, then our mission is incomplete.”

“There must be a complete cease-fire,” Elaraby said.

Elaraby stressed the achievements of the Arab League mission, saying Syria’s government has pulled tanks and artillery from cities and residential neighborhoods and freed some 3,500 prisoners. He said food supplies have reached residents and the bodies of dead protesters have been recovered.

The monitors are supposed to verify Syria’s compliance with an Arab League plan to stop the crackdown on dissent — a plan Syria agreed to on Dec. 19. The plan requires Assad’s regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners.

The ongoing violence is reinforcing the opposition’s view that Syria’s limited cooperation with the observers is nothing more than a ploy by Assad’s regime to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.

In its statement, the LCC said the regime has been disguising soldiers and army officers in police uniforms and hiding their army vehicles to make it appear they have pulled out in accordance with the Arab League plan.

While most of the violence reported early in the uprising involved Syrian forces firing on unarmed protesters, there are now more frequent armed clashes between military defectors and security forces. The increasing militarization of the conflict has raised fears the country is sliding toward civil war.

The LCC said 20 people were killed across the country Monday, including 11 in restive Homs province in central Syria and three in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

Syria has banned most foreign reporters and prevented independent journalism, making it difficult to verify reports. Witness accounts, activist groups and amateur videos have become key channels of information.

One video posted Monday showed graphic images of blindfolded and bound corpses.

“The blood is still warm,” a voice says in the video, which apparently was shot in Idlib province.

On Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said army defectors attacked two military posts in that province, capturing a number of security forces. The rebels also clashed with soldiers at a third post, and there were casualties, the observatory said. The exact number of those captured and killed was not immediately available.

It was not clear if the observatory’s account from Idlib was connected to the footage in the amateur video.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the observatory, confirmed that tanks have not been seen in Syrian cities since Thursday. But he said residents reported that the weapons were still a threat.

“They can bring the tanks back and use them to fight,” Abdul-Rahman told The Associated Press. He said the Arab League should not necessarily see the withdrawal as a concession; instead, they should insist the tanks stay away for good.

The opposition also has complained that the presence of suspected regime agents with the observers has discouraged Syrians from approaching them.

Elaraby said the mission was relying less and less on logistics provided by the Syrian government, but pointed out that employing Syrian drivers was inevitable because they are familiar with the roads.

“We cannot investigate the true identity of drivers,” Elaraby said.

Suggesting that the League did not have a figure for the number of people in custody since the uprising began, Elaraby called on the opposition and ordinary Syrians to aid the observers by sending them names of relatives or friends they think are detained by Assad’s regime.

He did not say whether the League was able to verify the release of 3,484 prisoners or when they left prison.

“We call for the release of all of them,” he said.

Elaraby also defended the Sudanese general heading the Arab League mission. Controversy has swirled around Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

“He is a capable military man with a clean reputation,” Elaraby said of al-Dabi.

Amnesty International said al-Dabi led al-Bashir’s military intelligence service until August 1995, when he was appointed head of external security.

“During the early 1990s, the military intelligence in Sudan was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan,” it said in a statement.

“The Arab League’s decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League’s efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission’s credibility,” Amnesty said.

Elaraby said al-Dabi would report on the mission’s progress by the end of this week and that a meeting of Arab foreign ministers would be held next week to review the situation in Syria.

Despite the ongoing violence, the presence of the monitors has provided rare outside witnesses to the carnage in Syria and invigorated a protest movement that has faced a relentless military onslaught for months.

On Friday, which is the start of the weekend in the Arab world and the main day for protests, hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets calling for Assad’s downfall in the largest demonstrations in months.

The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising by reform-seekers but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs — a contention most international observers dismiss as an attempt by an autocratic regime to terrify its citizens into abandoning the revolt.

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