BEIRUT - The head of the Arab League warned yesterday that Syria may be sliding toward civil war, as security forces fired on thousands who poured into the streets in support of army defectors who switched sides to try to topple President Bashar Assad. At least 10 people were killed, activists said.
Also yesterday, an activist group said two foreign journalists and a translator were briefly detained near the Syrian capital, Damascus. The group, the Local Coordination Committees, had no further details. Canada’s CBC broadcaster later said one of its reporters was briefly detained at a checkpoint but was released.
The government has barred access to the country by most foreign media, except on a limited number of escorted trips.
Over the course of the 10-month-old uprising, much of the bloodshed has been from security forces firing on unarmed protesters. But in recent months breakaway soldiers have been attacking the Syrian military, and some opposition members have taken up arms against the regime, adding to the violence.
Despite that, Assad appears to have kept a firm grip on power in the face of growing international pressure to halt his crackdown and step down.
The Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, told the Associated Press that Assad’s regime was either not complying or only partially complying with an Arab League plan that Syria signed last month to end its crackdown.
“We are very concerned because there were certain commitments that were not complied with,’’ he said in Cairo, where the League is based. “If this continues, it may turn into civil war.’’
The UN estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, called the bloodshed appalling and urged the Russian government to reconsider its stance in support of “someone who has turned into such an appalling dictator.’’
Russia, a traditional Syrian ally, has blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s regime and threatening sanctions. “The whole Arab League has come together and said it’s unacceptable and others need to listen to that and act on that at the UN. Britain stands ready to do that,’’ Cameron said in an interview with Al Arabiya.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 20,000 people demonstrated yesterday in the northwestern province of Idlib. Security forces fired on protesters there as well as in the southern province of Daraa, the eastern region of Deir el-Zour, and the central province of Homs, all centers of frequent protests. At least 10 people were killed, the Observatory said.
A video posted online by activists showed dozens of people marching in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, chanting “Freedom forever, despite you Assad!’’ Midan, which has seen frequent antiregime protests, was hit by a suicide attack last Friday that killed 26 people.
It wasn’t clear who was behind that attack; the government blamed “terrorists’’ while the opposition suggested the regime orchestrated the blast to tarnish the uprising. Another video posted yesterday showed what appeared to be an armored personnel carrier on fire in Homs. The narrator said army defectors attacked the vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Arab League plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country.
An Arab League team of observers began work in Syria on Dec. 27 to offer an outside view of whether the government is abiding by its agreement to end the military crackdown.
The mission has been plagued by problems, including accusations that the Syrian government is interfering with the team’s work. This week, one of the observers resigned and told the pan-Arab TV channel Al Jazeera that the monitor mission was a “farce’’ because of Syrian government control.
Adnan al-Khudeir, head of the Cairo operations room to which the monitors report, told reporters Thursday that two more observers, from Algeria and Sudan, would be returning to their home countries. He did not identify them but said the Algerian gave health reasons and the Sudanese cited personal reasons.