2.42pm: The founder and the director for UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman has told the Guardian that he now has two witness statements reporting that at least one nail bomb was used on crowds protesting in the city of Duma, just north of Damascus at around 11:20 today.
Preceding a visit by Arab League monitors to the city, Abdurrahman said a 70,000 strong demonstration set off to the town hall and the courts of justice whereupon security services fired upon them with tear gas. When this failed to turn protestors back, at least one nail bomb was deployed injuring 24 people.
“Today, I have two witnesses who were attacked today and injured by a nail bomb.”
“I think they’ve [Syrian security services] attacked with one or two [nail bombs] because we have only 24 people injured.”
Abdurrahman added that this was not the first time he has been told about the use of nail bombs but until now he has now been able to gather any verifiable witness reports.
“Before when people told me about nail bombs I didn’t believe it,” he said.
He added that Arab League monitors were supposed to visit the victims of the attack in hospital imminently.
The London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that 10 activsts have been killed today, lower than the LCC’s count of 17.
Reuters also reports that rocks have been thrown at security forces in the Damascus suburb of Douma. In response troops have tear-gassed chanting crowds.
Speaking about the situation in Hama an Observatory spokesperson said, “Five were martyred today and at least 20 wounded when the Syrian security forces opened fire,”
A further five people are also reported dead in the city of Deraa, 25 wounded in Idlib and at least two dozen injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Speaking to Reuters activist Abu Hisham from Hama said, “This Friday is different from any other Friday. It is a transformative step. People are eager to reach the monitors and tell them about their suffering.”
In the Damascus suburb of Barzeh protesters held up signs saying, “The Monitors are witnesses who don’t see anything,” and shouted, “Bashar we don’t want you, Syrians raise your hands.”
1.36pm: The facebook page of the Local Coordination Committee group in Syria, which helps bring together protests in the country is reporting a number of clashes and incidents where protestors are being shot at and in some instances killed by Syrian security forces in Hama, Idlib, Damascus, and Talkalahk in the province of Homs. The LCC’s latest death toll is 17.
1.26pm: To add flavour to Martin Chulov’s analysis of today’s mass demonstrations in Syria, this video below appears to show a thousands strong demo from Hama earlier today.
Syrian activists promised that today would be a highly visible show of defiance. And they’ve delivered. Today’s protests are significant, not because of the overall numbers, which will become more apparent later in the day, but because of the range of locations in which they’re taking place.
The pre-Assad regime flag adopted by the demonstrators is being waved in demonstrations in many areas of Damascus, including Midan, Douma and al-Qadam, despite attempts by security forces to stop all gatherings. There are large protest in the second city, Aleppo, as well as Idlib, Latakia, and the city that continues to fight back, Homs. A rally has also kicked off across the border in a neighbourhood of the north Lebanon city of Tripoli.
The protesters may not have confidence in the Arab League mission’s means to bring about change on Syria. But the mission is clearly emboldening – and energising – a restive populace. Demonstrators are gambling – correctly – that the regime’s gunmen won’t mow them down with the monitors watching on.
Syrian security forces opened fire at protesters on Friday, killing at least 12, as hundreds of thousands filled the streets of restive cities to demonstrate against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said.
Five members of the security forces were also killed in a shooting in the city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Assad, 46, has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his heavy weaponry and army from cities, where more than 5,000 people have been killed since March – many shot during peaceful anti-government protests but also many killed in rebel attacks and local defense actions.
But the presence of Arab League monitors in hotspots across Syria since Monday has, if anything, energized the protesters.
Demonstrators determined to show the strength of their movement to the monitors on Friday threw rocks at security forces in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where troops tear-gassed the chanting crowds.
Five people were shot dead in the city of Hama and five in the city of Deraa in the south as crowds braved army and police.
“We are determined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there’s bloodshed is not important,” an activist named Abu Khaled said by telephone from the northern city of Idlib, one of the epicenters of nine months of unrest.
Most foreign media are banned from Syria and witness reports are hard to verify.
An opposition supporter named Manhal said thousands had tried to reach the main square to start a sit-in, but failed “because the security forces are firing a lot of tear gas and a few rounds of live fire.”
“People hoped the presence of monitors will prevent fierce attacks. I believe we have partial protection, I don’t think they would use live fire on us in front of the monitors.”
The Observatory reported the deaths in Hama and Deraa. It said security forces had shot dead two people and wounded 37 in Idlib province. At least two dozen were also injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said.
Amateur video from Idlib showed monitors in white baseball caps and yellow safety vests wading through a sea of protesters.
Some rushed at the observers, trying to shout a few words over the thousands chanting “The people want to liberate the country!.”
Protesters flooded the alleyways and streets of many protest centers, clapping and shouting “Peaceful, Peaceful” and “The people want you executed, Bashar!.”
Some held up banners with the names of those shot dead in protests: “We will not forget your spilled blood,” they read.
In parts of Hama, videos showed protesters fleeing the main streets as heavy gunfire erupted in the background. In one such segment, a few men rushed back, ducking in the crackle of gunfire, to carry away a man who had fallen limp in the street.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, protesters bore away a man whose leg had been shredded by what they said were “nail bombs.”
Activists in Idlib said the army had concealed its tanks in buildings on the outskirts or in dugouts.
WITHDRAWAL OF FORCES
The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset – over its makeup, its small numbers, its reliance on Syrian government logistics, and an initial assessment by its Sudanese chief that the situation was “reassuring.”
That comment was met with disbelief in the West on Wednesday but on Friday Syria’s ally Russiaaccepted the judgment.
“Judging by the public statements made by the chief of the mission (Sudanese general Mohammed) al-Dabi, who in the first of his visits went to the city of Homs … the situation seems to be reassuring,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on its website.
However on Friday al-Dabi, whom some link to war crimes in Darfur in the 1990s, said the reports of his comments were “unfounded and not true,” a mission statement said. It said all future statements would be in writing.
Activist video from Homs over the months has depicted a trail of death and destruction sown by the military.
“Unfortunately, reports show that the violence has continued in Syria over the past few days,” said Britain’s Foreign Office minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt.
“I urge the Syrian government to meet fully its obligations to the Arab League, including immediately ending the repression and withdrawing security forces from cities.”
In Brussels, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU “urges Syria to comply with the action plan of the Arab league in all its components” including “an immediate end of violence, the release of political prisoners (and) pulling the military out of cities.”
PARTNER FOR PEACE?
The monitoring teams have encountered a range of problems, from hostility when they turn up under army escort to random gunfire, shouting mobs and communications breakdowns.
An Arab League member from a Gulf State played down expectations for the mission, which has no peacekeeping mandate.
Even if its report turned out to be negative, it would not “act as a bridge to foreign intervention” but simply indicate that “the Syrian government has not implemented the Arab initiative,” the delegate told Reuters.
The commander of the anti-government Free Syrian Army told Reuters its fighters had been ordered to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with Arab League delegates.
“All operations against the regime are to be stopped except in a situation of self defense,” Colonel Riad al-Asaad said. “We have tried to communicate with them and we requested a meeting with the team. So far there hasn’t been any success.”
Just how widely the Turkey-based commander’s order will be heeded by anti-government gunmen inside Syria is in question. A video shot by rebels this week showed the ambush of a convoy of army buses in which, activists said, four soldiers were killed.
The FSA, formed by thousands of defectors from Assad’s army and financed by expatriate Syrians, has taken the offensive in the past three months, taking the fight to the state rather than simply trying to defend opposition strongholds.
Its decisions are potentially crucial to any peace plan.
Syria says it is fighting Islamist militants steered from abroad who have killed more than 2,000 of its troops. Activists do not dispute a significant toll among the security forces.
Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of people defied a continuing government crackdown to fill the streets of several Syrian cities on Friday, intent on showing visiting monitors from the Arab League the extent of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
As thousands marched in Idlib, Homs, Hama and in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, violence flared at several of the rallies. By day’s end, activist groups said that more than two dozen people had been killed by security forces. The large crowds, while not unprecedented, underscored the resilience of the protest movement despite United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since opposition to the government galvanized in March.
A protester in Dara’a, who reported huge demonstrations, said: “We want to show the Arabs and the world that we are peaceful protesters, not criminals or armed gangs. The coming days and weeks will prove our statements, not the regime’s story.”
The government’s supporters also held rallies, according to witnesses and the Syrian state news agency, SANA, which posted photographs of large gatherings in Aleppo and Damascus. The news agency said the protesters were “demanding the Arab League observer mission to be credible and professional in conveying the facts of what the terrorist groups are perpetrating.”
The arrival of the observers has been one of the most closely watched developments in the nine-month-old Syrian conflict. For days this week, their role was heavily criticized by opposition activists, who complained about the paltry number of observers and about the mission’s leader, a former Sudanese general. The military intelligence branch he oversaw has been accused of crimes by human rights groups.
Many feared the mission was another stalling tactic by the government. Even so, everyone seemed to want a minute of the observers’ time.
By week’s end, after four hectic days of visits, the observers seemed to have ushered in a new phase of the conflict, or at the very least, altered its dynamic.
They had not yet approached success in their official mission, including monitoring a withdrawal of government forces from cities and the release of political prisoners. Despite some withdrawals of tanks from certain neighborhoods, the government’s security forces were still entrenched in restive cities. While people in Homs saw tanks pulling out, activists in Idlib said Friday that the security presence had increased.
The government said it had released more than 700 prisoners this week, but activists and Human Rights Watch reported that hundreds of others were simply transferred to off-limits or secret detention facilities. The government still has not let journalists travel to the country, as it had promised.
There were signs that the observers had begun registering some of the complaints that they had heard. In video posted by activists on Friday, a man wearing the observers’ orange vest — and whom advocates asserted was a member of the observer mission — tells a crowd of people that he and his colleagues saw snipers in buildings and had demanded that the government remove them.
“We saw them with our naked eyes,” the man said. “If they don’t remove them, there will be other measures.” In another clip, people showed the man bullet wounds and other scars.
The presence of the observers also seemed to have altered the tactics of the opposition. The protesters, emboldened by the visitors, held vigorous demonstrations on several days this week, while an armed opposition militia, the Free Syrian Army, announced that it was halting its attacks on the government for the month that the observers would be on the ground.
The leader of the rebel group, Col. Riad al-As’aad, told Reuters that the group had halted attacks since the observers arrived last week, though his claim seemed to be contradicted by a video posted on the Internet on Wednesday showing armed gunmen aligned with the militia firing on a government convoy.
And the mere presence of the observers did not seem to stop the killings of more than a hundred people, activists said, since the observers started their visits on Tuesday.
From a rooftop in Qamishli, in the northeastern Syria, an activist captured on video a shooting at a demonstration on Friday. Young men, some throwing rocks, walked toward security officers, then scattered at the sound of heavy gunfire. Seconds later, on the ground below the activist, a man can be seen in a pink shirt, with what looks like blood welling in his lower back. Several men hauled him away.
After security officers opened fire on a demonstration in a suburb of Damascus — an area the observers were visiting — one of the protesters, Muhammad al-Dormany, said: “I don’t think 50 or 60 observers is enough to cover Syria.”
“I think the Arab League should send thousands of observers, to all the hot spots.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.