Fifty peace monitors from the Arab League arrived in the ancient Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday, a city that has served as the hub of the pro-democracy revolution in Syria and in turn paid a shattering price.
The monitors were welcomed by a massive demonstration of tens of thousands of residents, who flooded the streets that had suddenly -- and mysteriously -- been swept of President Bashar al-Assad's tanks and snipers. The Arab League has pledged that 100 more monitors will soon follow.
Homs, situated 160 km (100 miles) north of Damascus, is the country's third-largest city and is home to more than one million Syrians.
In recent months, it has turned into the thumping heart of the Syrian protest movement, and now, as forces loyal to the embattled Assad continue to police the streets, looks increasingly like the site of a sectarian civil war. Army defectors have banded together in Homs to set up the Free Syrian Army, whose gunmen have been actively battling pro-Assad forces, whom residents say are Assad's attempt to intimidate the population into submission.
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Assad insists that the unrest sweeping his country is the result of terrorists and foreign subversives, including militant Islamists, and denies any systematic repression.
Human Rights Watch declared last month that Syrian government forces have committed crimes against humanity in Homs in their attempt to crush Assad's opposition. HRW said that thousands of people in Homs had been subjected to arbitrary arrest, systematic disappearances and torture while in detention. Most prisoners were released after several weeks in detention, but several hundred are still missing, the organization said.
The aim of the peace monitors' first tour of the flashpoint city is to determine if Assad is making good on his promise to implement a peace plan that would bring about an end to his uncompromising military crackdown, and stopping Syria from spiraling into civil war.
For months, Syria had stalled the Arab League before finally acquiescing and allowing the monitors in, the first significant international intervention on the ground since the start of the popular revolt inspired by Arab pro-democracy uprisings this year. Damascus has barred most foreign journalists from the country, making it hard to verify events on the ground.
The head of the Arab League delegation is Sudanese Lt.-Gen. Mustafa al-Dabi, who told Reuters, "The situation seemed reassuring so far." Commenting on the arrival of the peace monitors in Homs, al-Dabi said, "Yesterday [Tuesday] was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not see tanks but we did see some armored vehicles. But remember this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time."
"I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to Homs," al-Dabi added. "The team is staying in Homs. Today was very good and all sides were responsive."
Analysts say the Arab League is anxious to avoid civil war. Western powers have shown no desire to intervene militarily in a volatile region of the Middle East conflict. The U.N. Security Council is split, with Russia - a major arms supplier to Assad - and China opposed to any hint of military intervention.
Some activists have voiced concern over the choice of a Sudanese general to head an Arab League mission in Syria, insisting that Sudan's own defiance of a war crimes tribunal means the monitors are unlikely to recommend strong action against Assad. Syrian opposition activists are reluctant to publicly criticize a monitoring mission in which they have invested high hopes. But several have privately wondered whether a Sudanese military man would be willing or able to take a hard stance against Assad.
Reuters is reporting that according to activists in Syria, tens of thousands of protesters who marched towards Homs' city center on Tuesday were met by Syrian security forces, who lobbed them with teargas. In a video circulating on YouTube, protesters can be heard shouting "We want international protection!" The video also shows protesters begging Arab League observers to venture further into the Baba Amr quarter, where clashes between civilians and government forces have been especially fierce.
Other reports indicate that just before the monitors arrived, up to a dozen tanks were seen leaving the city, but still other tanks were hidden so as give the observers a false sense of calm.
"My house is on the eastern entrance of Baba Amr. I saw at least six tanks leave the neighborhood at around 8 a.m.," Mohamed Saleh told Reuters by telephone. "I do not know if more remain in the area." Residents told peace monitors that they have repeatedly been fired at, with one resident saying, "We are unarmed and we are being killed" and, "They are massacring us here."
Al-Jazeera television showed an estimated 20,000 Syrians in a square in Khalidiya, one of the four districts where there has been bloodshed as rebels fight security forces in tanks.
They were whistling and shouting and waving flags, playing music over loudspeakers and clapping. Women were advised to leave because of the risk of heavy violence. But a speaker urged the men to "come down, brothers." The demonstrations included protests as well as funerals.
The protesters shouted "We have no one but God" and "Down with the regime." An activist named Tamir told Reuters they planned to hold a sit-in in the square. "We tried to start a march down to the main market but the organizers told us to stop, it's too dangerous. No one dares go down to the main streets. So we will stay in Khalidiya and we will stay here in the square and we will not leave from here," he said.
The U.N. estimates that 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the revolt, with hundreds of the deaths occurring in Homs.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed 15 people across the country on Tuesday, six of them in Homs. An activist network said 34 had been killed on Monday.
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