Saturday, December 31, 2011

Syrian troops fire on protesters in fresh violence

? Russia's Foreign Ministry said an initial assessment by Arab League observers in Syria was "reassuring," even as activists reported that Syrian security forces fired on demonstrators after Friday prayers and that an ambush by government troops killed four people.

Moscow is one of Syria's few remaining allies following more than nine months of violence stemming from a massive protest movement. The United Nations says some 5,000 people have been killed in the government crackdown on dissent.

"Moscow appraises with satisfaction the real beginning of the Arab League activities in Syria," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The ministry noted that the Sudanese general who heads the mission visited the restive city of Homs.

"The situation there is reassuring, clashes have not been recorded," the statement said.

There is broad concern about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor compliance with a plan to end to the crackdown on political opponents by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

On Friday, activists said security forces fired on protesters in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the southern city of Daraa and elsewhere.

At least four people were reported killed in the town of Talkalakh, near the border with Lebanon, in an ambush by government troops. It was not immediately clear why they were killed as the victims were not believed to be protesting at the time, activists said.

The presence of Arab League monitors in Syria has re-energized the anti-government protest movement, with tens of thousands turning out this week in cities and neighborhoods where the observers are expected to visit.

The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces, apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab observers began their one-month mission on Tuesday.

The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League plan to end President Bashar Assad's crackdown on dissent.

The plan, which Syria agreed to on Dec. 19, demands that the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.

State-run TV said observers have reached Idlib province, which borders Turkey; Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma. Activists said the army had either withdrawn or hid tanks in the mountains in Idlib.

On Thursday, security forces killed at least 26 people, four of them shot dead in the Damascus suburb of Douma during a protest by tens of thousands. The crowd had gathered at the mosque near to a municipal building where cars of the monitors had been spotted outside.


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