Syrian troops fire on protesters, activists say

January 9, 2012 - 7:41 AM
Mideast Syria

A Syrian woman, left, speaks with an Arab league observer, right, who attends with other observers a mass prayer for the people and army soldiers who were killed during the violence around the country, at the Holy Cross Church, in Damascus, Syria, on Monday Jan. 9, 2012. Thousands of Syrians attended special prayers held in Damascus for the more than 5,000 people killed since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March. The prayers was attended by Christian and Muslim religious leaders.(AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Syrian troops have fired on protesters as Arab League observers toured the area.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's shooting happened in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood of Homs province. Majd Amer, an activist in Khaldiyeh, confirmed the shooting and said several people were wounded.

About 165 Arab League observers are in different parts of Syria to monitor the implementation of a League plan for ending the months of violence.

It was not immediately clear if the observers witnessed Monday's shooting.

On Sunday, the Arab League demanded that the Syrian government immediately stop all violence.

Syria is trying to crush an uprising that erupted in March. The U.N. estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — The Arab League demanded Sunday that the Syrian government immediately stop all violence and allow more monitors in, as activists reported at least 10 more civilians, including two teenagers, were killed by regime forces.

Fierce clashes in the south between government troops and military defectors left 11 soldiers dead, activists said. The Arab League also called on other armed parties to halt all bloodshed, an apparent reference to the defectors.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani said the ministers did not agree to call for U.N. experts to join the observers' mission in Syria, but said U.N. experts will train the monitors in Cairo before they leave. Even had they called for the U.N. experts to go in, Syria's regime may well have blocked them.

The success of the mission, said Al Thani, who heads the committee, "depends on the government of Syria, and that means stopping the killings, withdrawing troops from the cities, and allowing journalists to work and enter Syria."

The ministerial committee called on "the Syrian government and various armed groups to immediately halt all forms of violence and to return to protesting peacefully for the success of the Arab League observers' mission in Syria."

At the meeting, the head of the observers issued his first report on the mission, sharing photos, maps and initial findings.

The five foreign ministers from the 22-member Arab League, who met in Cairo, said the 165 Arab League monitors now on the ground need greater independence from President Bashar Assad's regime.

The monitors are supposed to be ensuring Syrian compliance with a plan to end the government's crackdown on dissent. The Arab League plan calls on Syria to remove heavy weaponry, such as tanks, from all cities, free all political prisoners and allow in human rights organizations and foreign journalists. Syria agreed to the plan on Dec. 19.

Opposition activists say around 450 people have been killed by Assad's regime since observers began work in Syria nearly two weeks ago.

A Syrian activist in Cairo, Thaer Al-Nashef, told The Associated Press that the regime is misleading the observers and that the mission has done nothing to resolve the crisis. He said the issue should be dealt with at the U.N. Security Council.

"The monitors have not moved the situation forward or backward in Syria. At the same time the regime is killing the Syrian revolution," he said. "The Arab League should stop this staged performance, because the Syrian regime is not adhering to the agreement."

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said observers will continue their monthlong mission in Syria, despite claims by activists that the mission is giving cover to Assad's crackdown on protesters and delaying further action.

He also defended the choice for head of the mission, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Al-Dabi, saying his military experience was useful on the ground. Al-Dabi has drawn criticism because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Although the Arab League said it needs more monitors in Syria, ministers on Sunday did not name an exact number. Initially, the League had requested to send 500 monitors, but so far Syria has allowed in only 165.

The Qatari foreign minister told reporters after the meeting that the League is aware that the mission has not fulfilled its goal of stopping the bloodshed.

"Is what happened, ideal? We want to do more," he said. "We know that the Syrian people have made a decision, but what we want is to lessen the losses, human losses."

According to the U.N., more than 5,000 people have been killed since March when mostly peaceful anti-government protests began and drew a harsh military response from the government. Hundreds more have been killed since the U.N. issued that estimate last month.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 soldiers died in intense fighting in the town of Basr al-Harir in southern Daraa province. More than 20 troops were wounded.

In Homs, seven civilians were killed by troops raiding houses and pro-government snipers on rooftops. A 15-year-old boy was among seven civilians killed, the Observatory said.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network and other activists confirmed the killing of civilians. In the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, two people were killed during raids that followed clashes with defectors, and in the eastern Deir el-Zour province, a 19-year-old was also killed during raids in pursuit of activists, the activists said.

The reports could not be independently confirmed as Syria has barred most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the local media.

While many of the anti-government protests sweeping the country since March remain peaceful, the Syrian uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as frustrated demonstrators take up arms to protect themselves from the steady military assault. An increasing number of army defectors also have launched attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.

The regime's crackdown has led to broad worldwide condemnation and sanctions, weakened the economy and left Assad an international pariah just as he was trying to open up his country and modernize the economy.

The government says that the turmoil in Syria is not an uprising but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.

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Batrawy reported from Cairo.