Syrian forces fire on activists near monitors from Arab League

At least 21 killed in violence nationwide

HOMS, SYRIA Syrian security forces opened fire Thursday on tens of thousands protesting outside a mosque in a Damascus suburb, close to a municipal building that members of the Arab League monitoring mission were believed to be visiting.

Activists said at least four people were killed.

Troops also fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse large protests in several other areas of the country, including central Damascus, killing at least 21 people nationwide, activists said.

The ongoing violence, and new questions about the human rights record of the head of the Arab League monitors, are reinforcing the opposition’s view that Syria’s limited cooperation with the observers is nothing more than a farce for President Bashar Assad’s regime to buy time and forestall more international sanctions.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said about 20,000 people were protesting outside the Grand Mosque in the Damascus suburb of Douma when troops opened fire. Cars belonging to the Arab League monitors were seen in front of a municipal building close to the mosque, he said.

Mr. Abdul-Rahman and other activists said the monitors were barred by security officials from entering Douma following the killings, after the situation deteriorated.

A witness said angry citizens closed off streets with rocks and garbage containers and thousands of people returned to the area around the Grand Mosque to stage a sit-in.

Troops also surrounded a mosque in Damascus’ central neighborhood of Midan and tossed tear gas canisters at hundreds of people who were calling for the downfall of the regime.

The 60 Arab League monitors, who began work Tuesday, are the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the Arab League plan to end Mr. Assad’s nine-month crackdown on dissent.

The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died in the uprising since March.

The plan, which Syria agreed to Dec. 19, demands that the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition, and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.

Syria has allowed the monitors in, released about 800 prisoners and pulled some of its tanks from the city of Homs. But it has continued to shoot and kill unarmed protesters and has not lived up to any other terms of the agreement.

Leading opposition members, meanwhile, are calling on the Arab League to remove the Sudanese head of the monitoring mission because he was a senior official in the “oppressive regime” of President Omar al-Bashir, who is under an international arrest warrant on charges of committing genocide in Darfur.

The head of the mission, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, is a longtime loyalist of the Sudanese president and once served as his head of military intelligence.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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