Beirut, Lebanon – For a few hours Tuesday, it looked as if Syria might be starting to ease a crackdown on dissent that has turned parts of the country’s third-largest city into a virtual war zone.
Some tanks started pulling out of the city of Homs, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets shouting their anger at the government of President Bashar Assad, opposition activists and witnesses said.
But the activists charged that the government’s action was a ruse to mislead observers from the Arab League, who got their first look at the city that has been at the center of a 9-month-old uprising.
At least some of the tanks, they said, were moved into government and school compounds, where they would be out of sight. And they said that before many of the marchers could reach the central square, where they planned to stage a sit-in, security forces opened fire with tear gas and live bullets.
Security forces killed as many as 45 people across Syria on Tuesday, including 19 in the Homs region, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition group, put the day’s toll at 42, with 17 killed in Homs.
“Nothing has changed with the arrival of observers,” said an activist reached in Homs, who asked not to be identified to avoid retaliation. “The tanks are still in the streets. Maybe the only thing that has changed is that they are in the side streets, not main streets.”
Syria has barred most foreign journalists, and the opposition claims could not be independently verified. There was no immediate comment from the government.
Tuesday marked the official start of an Arab League mission to determine whether the government is upholding a promise to suspend the crackdown, part of a league-negotiated plan to end months of bloodshed that Syria’s neighbors fear could push the country into a civil war. More than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major antigovernment protests in March, according to United Nations estimates.
Opposition activists say violence has only increased since the government agreed early last month to withdraw security forces from urban areas, release political prisoners and open negotiations with its opponents.
Syrian officials blame the bloodshed on what they describe as armed terrorists supported from abroad, who they allege are mixed in with the demonstrators. They say most of the casualties have been security force members.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported Tuesday that six textile workers were killed and four injured when their bus was hit in a roadside bombing in the northwestern province of Idlib. It also reported that several members of an “armed terrorist group” were killed in clashes with security forces near the Turkish border, and that a gas pipeline was sabotaged in Homs province.
Opposition activists say the observer mission is too small to cover Syria’s many trouble spots. Just 50 observers have arrived so far, with about 100 more expected by the end of the month.
League officials provided few details about the first day. Adnan Khedair, who heads the mission’s operation room at league headquarters in Cairo, said about a dozen observers took part in the trip to Homs and met with the provincial governor. Syrian authorities did not interfere with their work, he said.
The day included a stop in Bab Amro, a neighborhood that residents said was subjected to days of punishing tank, mortar and machine-gun fire before the monitors arrived. On Tuesday morning, the explosions subsided, they said.
One man, who asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, Abu Salah, said he met with the observers in a neighborhood street.
“They were sympathetic but in a rush,” he said. “What has changed? Thanks to the arrival of the observers, we managed to bury our dead. We buried 15 bodies that were for the past 16 hours in people’s houses … because of the heavy shelling of the neighborhood.”
Amateur video was posted on YouTube purporting to show some residents pleading with members of the observer team to venture further into the neighborhood.
“We are unarmed civilians being killed here!” a man yelled as gunfire erupted nearby.
Another video posted by activists was said to show security forces dressed in riot gear firing at protesters even while the monitors were inside the city. The authenticity of the footage could not be independently verified.