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Syrian activists dispute progress

Arab League says tanks withdrawn, food provided

BEIRUT – Syria’s government has taken steps to comply with a regional initiative to end months of bloodshed, including pulling tanks out of cities and releasing nearly 3,500 detainees, the head of the Arab League said Monday. But he said gunfire continues and called for a halt to the hostilities.

Syrian opposition activists disputed the assertion of significant progress, saying security forces had killed more than 150 people since Arab observers began work Dec. 27 to determine whether the government is ending a violent crackdown against dissent.

The reported death toll on Monday alone was as high as 26, said the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition that organizes protests and documents the violence. Most foreign journalists are barred from Syria, and it was not possible to verify the figures provided by the opposition.

The statement by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby provided his first public comments on the findings of Arab observers, whose mission is the first of its kind for the 22-member regional bloc.

Elaraby defended the league’s efforts, saying tanks and other military vehicles have pulled back to the outskirts of cities and residential areas, food aid has been provided and bodies recovered.

“Yes, there is still shooting, and yes, there are still snipers,” Elaraby told reporters in Cairo, where the Arab League is based. But he said it was “hard to say who is shooting whom.”

“There must be a complete cease-fire,” he said.

Elaraby’s remarks were met with disbelief by opposition activists in some of Syria’s major trouble spots.

“Either the Arab observers are blind or they are working for the regime,” said an activist in the strife-torn city of Homs, who goes by the name Abu Rami. He said there were checkpoints “full of soldiers” in the city and tanks hidden on its outskirts that could be back inside within minutes.

“This is not a withdrawal,” he said.

The Arab League mission drew criticism even before it began last week. On Sunday, the Arab Parliament, a league advisory body, called for the withdrawal of the observers, saying their presence was providing cover for continued attacks on protesters by President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The Local Coordination Committees said the league had “fallen victim to the regime’s typical traps,” accusing authorities of disguising soldiers in police uniforms and painting their vehicles to confuse the observers.

Activists welcomed the reported release of 3,484 detainees, but said thousands of others remain behind bars and more are arrested every day.

Opposition groups contend that the observer mission is too small and too easily misled to effectively monitor a country of about 22 million. Elaraby said there were 70 monitors working in six cities, with 30 others expected soon.

What began in March as an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising has become more violent in parts of the country where military defectors and some civilians have taken up arms against government security forces. U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, and they have warned that the country could be on the brink of civil war.