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Critics alarmed as monitors are ‘reassured’ in Homs

Arab League monitors reported seeing “nothing frightening” in the protest hotbed of Homs Wednesday, heightening opposition activists' and human rights campaigners' concerns that the mission is tightly controlled by the Syrian regime.


Arab League monitors moved on to the Syrian cities of Idlib, Hama and Deraa on Wednesday, a day after claiming they had seen “nothing frightening” in the city of Homs, where anti-government protesters said they had buried 34 people killed by security forces on Monday alone.

Charged with assessing the extent of the government crackdown on dissident protesters, the observers team said they were “reassured” by what they saw on their first day in Homs, which is considered the focal point of the nine-month-old uprising – and the worst hit by the repression. The head of the mission, Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, told reporters that Damascus was cooperating well with their work. But critics denounce the investigation as a sham, arguing that the authorities have tight control over what the monitors see.

‘Taken out for a walk’

Syrian opposition leaders were quick to denounce the mission as flawed. Basma Kodmani, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council (SNC), told French radio France Inter on Tuesday that the monitors were subject to “all sorts of manipulation”. She said that some 40,000 prisoners had been removed from the prison they were being held in, installed in a military barracks five kilometres away and replaced by false prisoners who gave observers a scripted account of events. She also added that entire families were posing as armed gangs to back up government claims about the militants' identity.

Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said Wednesday that the government released 755 prisoners detained over the past nine months in the regime's crackdown on dissent. Releasing prisoners is one of the key conditions of an Arab League roadmap approved by Syria last month to end the country's crisis. Rights groups and the United Nations estimate that several thousand people have been arrested since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.

(Source: AP, AFP)

FRANCE 24 international politics correspondent Matthieu Mabin described the situation as the Syrian authorities taking the observers “for a walk”. “It was quite obvious that the regime wouldn’t be offering up evidence on a plate concerning the abuses they’ve committed over the past few months,” he said Tuesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a London-based watchdog, also warned of potential abuses of power in covering up evidence of the crackdown. They said Syrian authorities had been changing signposts in order to mislead the observers about their whereabouts.

Just hours before the observers' arrival in Homs, dissidents said a dozen tanks had withdrawn from the restive district of Baba Abr, one of the worst hit during the crackdown, and those that remained were hidden from view. “The tanks left the district at about eight o’clock this morning,” a resident living on the eastern outskirts of the district told Reuters on Tuesday. According to SOHR president Rami Rahmane, the retreat of the tanks was a “ruse” and bombing could have started again at any moment.

According to SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun, an initial group of observers was temporarily barred from entering Homs on Monday, while those who finally made it to Baba Abr were not allowed to look around properly. “At least locals were able to go out and stock up on food,” said Cham Daoud, coordinator of Paris-based opposition website Souria Houria (Freedom Syria). “They’ve barely dared leave their homes for weeks.”

Silence on the inside

Tens of thousands of Homs residents took to the streets on Tuesday to denounce “the crimes of the regime” during the visit by Arab League observers. They were dispersed by security forces firing tear gas and bullets into the crowd. Human rights groups said at least six people were killed.

“The authorities are using the [observation mission] in order to intensify the violence,” SNC's Ghalioun told AFP on Monday. “It’s a way of making the public lose hope.”

For Middle East expert Masri Feki, the Syrian authorities know they must control the mission in order to avoid the threat of UN intervention. “We know perfectly well that the observers won’t see what’s really going on,” he told FRANCE 24 in an interview on Tuesday. “This mission is a purely diplomatic manoeuvre – the Arab League wants to show it’s playing an important role, and Syria wants to prove that the footage we see on TV is false.”

The Arab League voted on January 12 to suspend Syria as a member state, but has yet to take a stance as to potential UN Security Council measures.

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