Beirut – Residents of the Syrian city of Homs said the government pulled some of its tanks from the streets on Tuesday morning, shortly before Arab League observers arrived to monitor pledges by the government to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from residential areas.
But sporadic fighting continued on Tuesday morning in Bab Amr, the neighborhood hardest hit by the violence that has left dozens of people dead in recent days, residents said. Activists said some tanks were still visible. They claimed others were being hidden.
Early Tuesday, a contingent of observers met with the governor of Homs and then with opposition figures inside the city.
Ahmed, an activist with the Local Coordination Committees in Homs, said in a telephone interview that he was among a group of people escorting observers from Sudan, Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania. As the group tried to visit a mosque where several bodies were being stored, they were stopped by gunfire coming from a government checkpoint.
Activists posted a video on the Internet on Tuesday that they said showed several men pleading with the observers. One man wanted the observers to announce that they had been prevented from visiting a part of the city because snipers were still in the buildings. Gunshots can be heard in the background.
“Say what you saw,” the man said. “Twenty martyrs,” said another man.
Thousands of people held demonstrations inside of Homs.
Teams of observers are supposed to travel to several other cities, including Hama, Dara’a and Idlib. Human rights groups have questioned how effective the mission would be. Critics have raised doubts about whether the observers can, or will, work independently of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and whether the team has members qualified to make sense of a conflict that looks increasingly like a civil war.
On Tuesday, activists said the observers were not accompanied by anyone from the government as they walked through the city. At the same time, they said the observers had not stayed long enough or ventured deep enough into neighborhoods. Ali, an anti-government activist, said they did not see the field hospitals or the “hot spots.”
“The observers failed today,” he said.
The official Syrian news agency, Sana, said that early Tuesday “terrorists” had attacked a natural gas pipeline in Homs for the second time in a month.
The Arab League has not released a list of the observers, though the names of a few people have become public. The mission is supposed to last a month.
Speaking to Reuters on Monday, the team leader, Lt. Gen. Mohamed al-Dabi, a former head of military intelligence and external security in Sudan said, “Our Syrian brothers are cooperating very well and without any restrictions so far.” He added that Syrian forces would be providing transportation for the observers.
Wissam Tarif, the Arab world campaigner for Avaaz, which documents protests, said he and other activists had repeatedly asked for biographies of the observers. He said his organization had decided not to participate over concerns that the government would be escorting the observers to conflict zones, making it impossible to do impartial interviews.
“A rapist can’t be one of the forensic experts examining a victim,” he said.
The observers’ visit coincides with some of the worst violence in the nine-month uprising, as the army and the security forces have attacked strongholds of resistance, in Homs and near Idlib.
Residents of Homs said the security forces had fired on protesters. They also spoke of an intensifying war in some neighborhoods, pitting defecting soldiers and other armed government opponents against the security forces and the army. Soldiers surrounded neighborhoods, tanks patrolling the streets. The residents, holed up in bathrooms or lower floors, could not say where most of the firing was coming from.
The fighting was concentrated in Bab Amr. A resident there, Abu Omar, said hundreds of families had fled and the neighborhood had run low on food. His family was surviving on potatoes. Several days ago, dozens of soldiers took over part of his house, firing heavy machine guns from his third floor for days.
In the city’s Inshaat neighborhood, residents said that the dead included a 60-year-old man, apparently shot as he walked to a mosque. Two groups — the Local Coordination Committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — said that 30 to 35 people were killed, but their tallies could not be confirmed independently.
Armed military defectors also seemed to be fighting intensely. A witness quoted by Reuters reported seeing ambulances full of wounded government soldiers over the last few days. Other residents said there was heavy shelling by government forces, but also exchanges of gunfire between the army and the opposition. The state news agency, Sana, said funerals were held on Monday for several members of the security forces killed in Homs.
Videos posted by activists on the Internet showed bodies in the rubble of buildings and mortar shells striking apartment buildings. The fighting is the latest trial for Homs, a stronghold of government resistance that has become one of Syria’s most perilous cities. Sectarian murders have left scores dead as armed defectors have carved out strongholds in some neighborhoods.
Some of the killings seemed to underscore the increasingly confused state of the battle in Homs. A 56-year-old woman in the Al-Malaab al-Baladi neighborhood, who gave her name as Nagham, said that on Monday morning, armed men told a taxi driver to stop, then shot at the taxi when he refused.
The car wound up in a public garden facing the woman’s house. “We don’t know who stopped him,” she said, speculating that the man could have been an informer stopped by revolutionaries, or a man wanted by the security forces. “We don’t know anything anymore.”