BEIRUT - Syria’s army suspended days of punishing attacks on the restive city of Homs and began withdrawing its tanks yesterday just as Arab League monitors visited the area, activists and officials said. Huge crowds poured into the streets shortly after the pullback, shouting defiantly that they will not be cowed by the crackdown.
Amateur video showed tens of thousands flooding the streets of the city, which had been under siege for days, to march in a funeral. They carried the open casket overhead with the exposed face of an older man with a white beard.
“Listen Bashar: If you fire bullets, grenades, or shells at us, we will not be scared,’’ one person shouted to the crowd through loudspeakers. Many were waving Syria’s independence flag, which predates the 1963 ascendancy of President Bashar Assad’s Ba’ath party to power.
About 60 Arab League monitors - the first Syria’s regime has allowed in during its nine-month crackdown on an antigovernment uprising - began work yesterday. They are there to ensure compliance with the league’s plan to halt violence against mostly unarmed, peaceful protesters, and the pullback in Homs was the first tangible sign Assad was implementing any of the terms.
After signing on to the plan early last week, Assad’s regime had only intensified the violence, rather than easing up, and it was condemned internationally for flouting the agreement. Government troops killed hundreds in just the past week. On Monday, security forces killed at least 42 people, most of them in Homs.
Amateur video released by activists showed residents of Homs’s tense Baba Amr district speaking to the Arab monitors.
“We are unarmed people who are dying,’’ one resident shouts to an observer. Seconds later, shooting is heard from a distance as someone else screams: “We are being slaughtered here.’’
In another exchange, a resident tells a monitor: “You should say what you just told the head of the mission. You said you cannot cross to the other side of the street because of sniper fire.’’
The observer points to the head of the team and says: “He will make a statement.’’ The resident then repeats his demand, and the monitor, smoking a cigarette, nods in approval.
The British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that as the monitors visited Homs, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in some neighborhoods to “reveal the crimes committed by the regime.’’
Later, the Observatory said some 70,000 protesters tried to enter the tightly secured Clock Square as security forces fired tear gas and later live bullets to prevent them from reaching it. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also said security forces were shooting at protesters trying to reach the city’s largest square.
The Arab League plan demands the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders, and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. Before yesterday’s redeployment of at least some tanks, there had been no sign that Assad was implementing any of the terms, much less letting up on his brutal crackdown.
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has 800,000 residents and is at the epicenter of the revolt against Assad. It is about 100 miles north of the capital, Damascus. Many Syrians refer to Homs as the “capital of the revolution.’’
Opposition activist Mohammed Saleh said the heavy bombardment of Homs since Friday stopped in the morning and tanks were seen pulling out. Another Homs-based activist said he saw armored vehicles leaving early on a highway leading to the city of Palmyra to the east. He asked that his name not be made public for fear of retribution.
“Today is calm, unlike pervious days,’’ Saleh said. “The shelling went on for days, but yesterday was terrible.’’
The British-based Observatory said some army vehicles pulled out of Homs while others relocated in government compounds “where [they] can deploy again within five minutes.’’
Given the crackdown, the opposition sees Syria’s agreement to the Arab League plan as a farce, and some even accuse the League of complicity in the killings.