Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby said on Monday that snipers and gunfire remain in Syrian cities and called for an immediate halt to the shootings, in his first remarks since Arab monitors were deployed.
“There is gunfire. There must be a total halt to the gunfire,” the League chief said, in the face of mounting criticism of the hard-won observer mission’s failure to stem the persistent bloodshed.
Araby charged that snipers were still deployed on rooftops in protest centers threatening the lives of civilians, even as monitors try to end the Syrian government's deadly crackdown that has claimed thousands of lives since March.
But “it is difficult to say who is firing on whom,” Araby told a news conference at Arab League headquarters in Cairo reported AFP.
Araby also said that the Syrian regime withdrew heavy weapons from cities, freed 3,484 prisoners, according to a report by The Associated Press.
The head of the observer mission, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, is due to send his “first report in the next two days” on the situation in Syria, Araby said.
“An Arab foreign minister has asked that a ministerial meeting be convened to discuss the report,” he added.
Araby said the Arab League may call for a meeting next week of foreign ministers to evaluate the work of the observers, who arrived in Syria on December 26 and began touring protest hubs the following day.
First monitors return to Cairo
The first mission of Arab monitors left Syria to the Egyptian capital after spending 10 days during which they toured various Syrian cities, Al Arabiya reported on Monday.
On arrival at the Cairo International Airport, Arab League Assistant Secretary General Samir Saif al-Yazal refused to give any statements regarding the vision of the monitors on the reality of the situation in Syria.
“All new developments will be included in a statement by the Arab League Secretariat,” Yazal told reporters. The Arab League forthcoming statement is expected to include a full report on the work of the Arab monitors as well as Syria’s compliance with an Arab peace plan that calls for President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, release detainees and talk to his opponents.
Araby had earlier said it should take only a week to see if Assad was keeping his word.
Syrian security forces, meanwhile, killed 12 more protesters on Sunday.
President Assad’s forces, keen to prevent huge protest rallies under the monitors’ eyes, have killed at least 286 people since Dec. 23, the day before the mission’s leader arrived in Syria, according to activists who tally casualties.
Some of Sunday’s deaths occurred when security forces fired on protesters in the Damascus suburb of Daria, they said.
On Sunday, a seven-year-old boy was killed in the central city of Hama when his father’s car came under a hail of bullets, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The first victim of 2012,” the Britain-based watchdog said in a statement received by AFP in Nicosia.
Activists have accused the regime of posting snipers on rooftops, and that issue appears to have triggered a dispute among the observers.
In a video released by the Observatory, a man wearing an orange vest with the Arab League logo said in Deraa: “There are snipers; we have seen them with our own eyes.”
“We ask the authorities to remove them immediately; if they don’t remove them within 24 hours, there will be other measures,” the unnamed speaker in the video, which was dated Friday, told a crowd of people.
The Arab Parliament, an 88-strong advisory committee of delegates from the Arab League’s member states, said the violence was continuing to claim many victims, according to Reuters.
“For this to happen in the presence of Arab monitors has roused the anger of Arab people and negates the purpose of sending a fact-finding mission,” its chairman, Ali al-Salem al-Dekbas, said in Cairo.
“This is giving the Syrian regime an Arab cover for continuing its inhumane actions under the eyes and ears of the Arab League,” he said.
Assad’s opponents, while welcoming the Arab mission as a rare chance for outsiders to witness events in Syria, had few illusions that the observers could halt a crackdown on dissent that U.N. officials say has cost over 5,000 lives since March.
“The presence of monitors has not affected the behavior of the regime with hundreds killed and no let-up,” said Rima Fleihan, from the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC).
The Arab Parliament was the first body to recommend freezing Syria’s League membership in protest at the bloodshed.
Arab monitors visiting Deraa, a southern town viewed as the cradle of the nine-month-old revolt, went to the home of Sheikh Ahmad Hayasneh, the elderly imam of the Omari mosque where the first big protests against Assad's 11 years in power erupted in March.
It was unclear if the monitors met Hayasneh, who residents say has been under house arrest for at least five months.
Some statements by Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, the mission’s leader, have suggested a soft approach to the Syrian authorities, although some monitors have not minced their words.
“We saw snipers in the town, we saw them with our own eyes,” one observer filmed in Deraa said in Arabic, visibly concerned. “We’re going to ask the government to remove them immediately. We’ll be in touch with the Arab League back in Cairo.”
Dabi later told the BBC the observer’s remarks, shown on a YouTube clip posted on Saturday, had been misreported.
In another incident, shown on Al Arabiya, a monitor in the embattled neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs appealed to the authorities by telephone to stop firing there.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets in the past week in an apparent effort to show the Arab monitors the depth of their rejection of Assad’s government.
“The Syrians want a modern regime in the New Year,” read a placard carried by protesters in a suburb of Damascus.
Assad blames the unrest on foreign-backed armed Islamists who officials say have killed 2,000 security personnel.
He retains the support of much of his minority Alawite community and, despite some defections, of the armed forces. While anti-Assad sentiment runs high in the provinces, there have been few protests in central parts of Damascus or Aleppo.
YouTube videos circulating on the Internet showed protesters across Syria welcoming 2012 in with fireworks and holding up signs pledging “Freedom for Life” and denouncing President Assad as the enemy.
A YouTube video shot in Zabadani near Damascus, shows hundreds of people dancing around a Christmas tree and chanting: “The people demand the ouster of the assassin.”