First Arab League monitors arrive in Syrian flashpoint city

Laura Rozen

Monitors from the Arab League arrived in the Syrian city of Homs Tuesday, as anti-government activists on the ground reported that military leaders had temporarily withdrawn tanks involved in President Bashar al-Assad's operation to quash mass protests.

The observers arrived a day after the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on protests claimed a reported 34 fatalities in Homs. Online video footage posted on Monday showed tanks firing through residential apartment blocks in the restive city, the third largest in Syria.

On Tuesday, ahead of the monitoring team's arrival in the area, Syrian activists said "up to a dozen tanks were seen leaving Baba Amr, one of Homs's most embattled neighborhoods, but others were being hidden," Reuters' Mariam Karouny and Erika Solomon reported.

The first 50 Arab League monitors arrived in Damascus on Monday, and have been organized into teams of 10. Another 100 are due to arrive shortly.

Headed by Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, the Arab League Syria mission aims to assess whether Syria's President Bashar al-Assad "is keeping his promise to implement a peace plan to end his uncompromising crackdown on nine months of revolt that has generated an armed uprising, edging the country towards civil war," Reuters wrote.

But with only 150 monitors for a country of more than 24 million people, it's not clear that the observers will be able to independently assess conditions on the ground. For instance, under the present arrangement, the mission's monitors must rely on the Syrian government for transport to the areas they will be observing.

Arab League officials have said its teams will tell the Syrian regime "where they [want] to go, based on requests from people in Homs who have witnessed the violence," Karouny and Solomon wrote. But they added that anti-government activists are worried that the mission could be "hoodwinked by the state and ... shown places where life is relatively normal."

The United Nations said earlier this month that at least 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian unrest since anti-Assad protestors first took to the streets in March 2011. Syrian opposition groups said last week the body count has grown in the past few weeks, to more than 6,000 people.

Several hundred people are reported killed in protest-related violence, as Syria's Assad negotiated with the Arab League over the scope of the monitoring mission.

The State Department last week urged the leaders of the Arab League mission to speed up their efforts, while accusing Assad of dragging on the negotiations. UN envoy Susan Rice also assailed her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, for delaying UN Security Council action on a resolution condemning the violence last week ahead of the Christmas holiday.

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