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Arab League mission arrives amid violence in Syria

From Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, for CNN
December 26, 2011 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Residents of Homs describe food shortages and a man shot to death
  • NEW: 42 people were killed Monday, an opposition group says
  • Syria says "martyrs" from the security forces were buried
  • The Free Syrian Army calls the Arab League process a "waste of time"

Cairo (CNN) -- Members of an Arab League delegation arrived Monday in Syria to look into events on the ground and whether Syria is upholding a commitment to end a brutal crackdown.

The trip comes amid reports of raging violence, opposition groups say, particularly in the flashpoint city of Homs.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCS) said 42 people were killed Monday -- 34 in Homs, four in Hama, two in Idlib, one in Daraa and one in the suburbs of Damascus.

State-run news agency SANA reported on burials of "martyrs" from the army and security forces who were killed by "armed terrorist groups" -- a phrase Syria has used frequently to describe some opposition forces throughout the uprising.

And SANA said that people in Homs "organized a mass march to express condemnation of the two terrorist attacks committed last Friday in Damascus and rejection of the foreign interference attempts."

Dual bombings targeted Syria's security apparatus Friday in Damascus. Syria said those attacks killed "more than 44 civilians and military members" and wounded 166 others.

The arrival of the 100 observers in Syria is part of an agreement that President Bashar al-Assad's government made with the Arab League last week, calling for withdrawing Syrian security forces from around cities, releasing detainees and ending all forms of violence.

Members of the delegation will visit Homs on Tuesday, a senior Arab League official told CNN.

Jamal Barakat, a member of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, told CNN he was part of the Arab League mission.

The LCCS said a member of the Arab League observatory mission was wounded by gunfire Monday from security forces. But, the Arab League denied the reoprt.

"We will be on a fact-finding mission to make sure the Syrian government is implementing the article of the protocol they signed," Barakat told CNN.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al Araby "emphasized the importance of neutrality, objectivity, and transparency of our work," Barakat said.

The mission will be broken up into different groups that will visit different cities, he said.

Araby, in a statement, said the mission will visit numerous areas including in the provinces of Homs, Idlib, Hama, Damascus, and Daraa.

A SANA report cited an Egyptian official as saying he hoped the Arab League mission will help serve as "an initial step towards a comprehensive political settlement to the Syrian crisis."

In recent weeks, the Syrian government has increased attacks that left scores dead, including many in the flashpoint city of Homs, opposition groups say.

Opposition activist Danielle Moussa, whose group was working to retrieve bodies, said elite government units in tanks were bombarding Homs on Monday under the command of Maher al-Assad, brother of the president.

CNN cannot independently verify opposition accounts of violence or reports of deaths and injuries in Syria. Al-Assad's government has restricted access to international journalists.

The LCCS said many of the deaths Monday were in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr.

A resident of the neighborhood told CNN he had no food left. "The Red Crescent tried to bring food but they were stopped at the entrance to the city," said Abu Omar.

CNN could not immediately reach officials with the Red Crescent for comment.

In another Homs neighborhood, Inshiaat, a resident -- who wanted to be identified only by her first name, Lubna, for safety reasons -- said people could not move freely because snipers were on tall buildings.

She said the army shot a man who was standing in the minaret of a mosque asking doctors to come to the nearby hospital and help people.

The man died from his gunshot wounds, Lubna and Abu Omar said.

Despite the Arab League mission's task, many Syrians question how effective it will be.

"We are concerned that the Arab League's mission is not clear enough" and might not be adequately transparent, said Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of Syrian Human Rights League. He also complained that "90% of the retired military and diplomatic experts on the observatory mission are over 60" and the other 10% are youths who "do not have enough field experience to maintain a fact-finding mission."

The opposition has described worsening conditions in cities and towns amid an intensifying government offensive.

The unrest in Syria began in March when protesters, emboldened by successful democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt, called for open elections and an increase in political freedoms. The movement quickly spiraled into a call for the ouster of al-Assad, who the opposition says responded with a brutal crackdown.

The protests have grown into an uprising that has seen the creation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel force made up of military defectors and efforts to create a breakaway government.

Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamdo of the Free Syrian Army called the Arab League efforts "nothing but a waste of time."

Speaking to CNN Monday, he said "the Syrian people" gave the opposition Syrian National Council a deadline of Thursday to bypass the Arab League efforts altogether and concentrate on bringing the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

"Protests against the SNC and a call for disbanding it will be escalated after the deadline if they continue to follow the Arab League's path," he warned.

The Syrian National Council had no immediate response.

Al-Assad has been under enormous international pressure to end the violence from the Arab League, Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

More than 5,000 people have died since al-Assad began the crackdown in mid-March on anti-government protesters calling for his ouster, the United Nations said earlier this month.

But opposition groups and political activists say the toll is much higher.

Avaaz, a New York-based political activist group, puts the toll at more than 6,000. The LCC also put the toll at more than 6,000.

The Syrian government has said 2,000 of its soldiers and security forces have been killed in the uprising.

CNN's Josh Levs, Samira Said, Roba Alhenawi and Salma Abdelaziz, Mohammed Jamjoom and journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.

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