Syrian rebels ‘hold fire’, want to meet monitors

Members from Arab League observers delegation walk in a government building during their visit Deraa city southern Syria, Dec. 29, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria’s national news agency.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The anti-government Free Syrian Army has been ordered to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with Arab League delegates monitoring President Bashar Assad’s compliance with a peace plan, the rebels’ commander said on Friday.

Colonel Riad al-Asaad said his forces had so far been unable to talk to the monitors, in the first week of their month-long mission, and he was still trying to contact them urgently.

“I issued an order to stop all operations from the day the committee entered Syria last Friday. All operations against the regime are to be stopped except in a situation of self defense,” he told Reuters.

“We have tried to communicate with them and we requested a meeting with the team. So far there hasn’t been any success. We haven’t been given any of the (phone) numbers for the monitors, which we have requested. No one has contacted us either.”

Assad has agreed to an Arab League plan to order a verifiable withdrawal of his heavy weapons and army from turbulent Syrian cities where more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, many shot during peaceful anti-government protests but also many killed in rebel attacks and defense actions.

The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset, over its makeup, its small numbers, its reliance on Syrian government logistics and an initial assessment by its Sudanese chief that the situation was “reassuring”.

That comment was met with disbelief in the West on Wednesday but on Friday, Syria’s ally Russia accepted the judgment

“Judging by the public statements made by the chief of the mission M. Al-Dabi, who in the first of his visits went to the city of Homs … the situation seems to be reassuring,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said on its website.

Sudan’s General Mustafa al-Dabi, who some link to war crimes in Darfur in the 1990s, visited the flashpoint city of Homs briefly on Tuesday and said he saw “nothing frightening”.

Activist video from Homs over the months has depicted a trail of death and destruction sowed by the military, with hundreds of killings of civilians reported.

The foreign ministry said Moscow was counting on the team’s “professionalism and impartiality”.

Partner for peace?

The FSA, formed by thousands of defectors from Assad’s military and security forces and financed by expatriate Syrians, has gone on the offensive in the past three months, taking the fight to the state rather than simply trying to defend opposition strongholds.

Its decisions are potentially crucial to any peace plan.

“Some of (our) soldiers inside Syria are trying to reach out to them but so far it doesn’t seem the committee members have been given enough freedom of movement so that the soldiers can meet them. The monitors are escorted by some members of Syrian security. Our defectors if found can be arrested and even executed …” Colonel al-Asaad said.

He said about 1,500 of his men were in custody and out of reach. He wanted to know their fate.

The monitoring teams have encountered a range of problems, from hostility when they turn up under army escort, to random gunfire and communications breakdowns.

Friday could prove another testing days as opponents of Assad take to the streets following Muslim prayers, the main day of protest in the revolts that have swept the Arab world.

In the northern city of Idlib, activists said the army had moved its armor out of sight.

“Security forces have moved some of their tanks out of the neighborhood streets and have put them behind buildings further out,” said Manhal of the local coordination committee. “They have also moved the tanks out of main streets. Some of them they moved into dugouts.”

The Arab League mission has so far failed to end Syria’s nine-month orgy of violence in response to demands for Assad to step down, although it was never advertised as a peacekeeping mission as such.

Government security forces shot dead 25 people on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They opened fire on protests in cities around the country, also wounding about 100 people.

Six were killed in Hama, a center of unrest, and four more were killed when security forces fired at a street rally in Douma, a Damascus suburb, the British-based Observatory said.

Activists contacted by telephone said they had little hope the Arab League monitors would protect them but they still aimed to bring people out into the streets after Friday prayers.

“We know that just because they are here, it doesn’t mean the bloodshed will stop. But at least they will see it,” said one activist in Hama, who was unwilling to give his name.

“We have plans for big protests tomorrow,” said another activist in the town of Idlib, although he declined to go into details.

Most foreign journalists, including Reuters correspondents, are banned from the country, making it impossible to verify the reports on the ground.

Syria says it is fighting Islamist militants steered from abroad who have killed more than 2,000 of its security forces personnel. Activist sources do not dispute that there has been a significant toll among the security forces.

( / 30.12.2011)

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