Arab League Monitors Visit Besieged Syrian City

Arab League monitors visited the central city of Homs, an opposition stronghold, besieged and under bombardment by the Syrian army until the monitors showed up. Syrian army armor was withdrawn from the city streets ahead of the visit, but activists say they expect a resumption of the army offensive as soon as the monitors leave. They also complain that they have not been allowed to meet with the Arab League team.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Syria today, demonstrators turned out in the thousands in the central city of Homs, long a hub of the anti-government uprising. For the past four days, the city was under heavy bombardment by the Syrian army, with activists reporting dozens killed. But today, tanks and troops pulled out of some neighborhoods ahead of the arrival of an Arab League monitoring team. The team is there to assess Syria's pledge to withdraw the army from city streets and end the violent crackdown on protestors.

NPR's Deborah Amos has the latest from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The funeral of a revered 86-year-old religious leader in Homs turned into a mass protest rally today, the largest demonstration in weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER)

AMOS: Syrian soldiers used tear gas to disperse this crowd, but rooftop snipers held their fire. They can't shoot us today, said one anti-government activist, because the Arab League monitors are here. But if the protestors were trying to send a message to the envoys from the Arab League, it's not clear if they heard it. Syrian television reported that the team was there to survey what it called the damage left by the terrorist groups in Bab Sbaa. That's one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the army assault, according to activists.

The monitors did make it to the edge of another protest neighborhood, Bab Amr, where just a few days ago, dissidents posted videos of dead bodies buried in the rubble. A resident approached and tried to invite the observers to come for a tour, but Syrian officials stepped in to end the discussion as gun fire was heard in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRE)

AMOS: That exchange was recorded on a cellphone and posted online today. The head of the mission, a Sudanese general, told reporters that the Syrian authorities were very cooperative, but activist Wissam Tariff says the general's team is getting a one-sided view.

WISSAM TARIFF: No, the activists can't talk to the monitors unless they take a huge risk on their life. The monitors are accompanied with the Syrian secret police and Syrian security forces.

AMOS: The Arab observers, about 150 of them, are fanning out to other troubled cities in the next few days, but the constant presence of government escorts has prompted the Syrian opposition to charge that the mission is costing lives and is already a failure. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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