Any hope the presence of Arab observers in Syria might end months of bloodshed evaporated Friday as opposition activists reported that security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of anti-government protesters.
BEIRUT — Any hope the presence of Arab observers in Syria might end months of bloodshed evaporated Friday as opposition activists reported that security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of anti-government protesters.
At least 35 people were killed across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and reports on the violence. The dead included nine people in the central city of Hama and five in the southern city of Dara, both places where observers were said to be present.
Opposition activists have expressed growing frustration with the observer mission, which is in Syria to monitor compliance with a regional peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and free access for the media.
The activists say the mission is too small and too easily misled by the government, which is providing security and logistic support to the observers. The selection of a Sudanese general, who once headed a military-intelligence branch accused of human-rights abuses, has also raised concern.
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Friday’s demonstrations appeared to be among the largest in weeks. Syrian opposition groups urged supporters to show their strength by retaking city and town squares from which they have been violently repelled since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March.
Tens of thousands of people across the country spilled into the streets after midday prayers, they said. The claim appeared to be borne out by amateur footage posted on the Internet showing huge, boisterous crowds, especially in the central province of Homs and the northwestern province of Idlib.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said government supporters also staged large rallies in the capital, Damascus, and several other areas.
Most foreign journalists are barred from Syria, making it virtually impossible to verify opposition and government claims.
In the Damascus suburb of Duma, a group of observers waded into a crowd gathered in front of the Grand Mosque, according to amateur video. But when they weren’t there, witnesses and activist said, gunfire erupted and ignited fierce clashes with the Free Syrian Army. Dozens of people were reported wounded.
Emboldened by the presence of monitors, women and children took part in some of the protests in the city of Homs, which has seen some of the worst violence, residents said.
“Today, people seem to feel safer,” said an activist reached in the city’s Khalidiya district, who was too afraid to be identified. “They are using tear gas. As one of my friends told me … ‘When I saw the tear-gas canister being thrown at me, I wanted to embrace it because I miss those things. For the past weeks, I saw only bullets.’ “
What began as a mostly peaceful uprising in March has turned more violent in recent months. Defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army have claimed responsibility for deadly assaults on military installations and personnel.
The Free Syrian Army said Wednesday it had suspended such attacks for the duration of the league’s one-month mission.