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Syrian protesters welcome Arab League monitors, warn of danger from Assad forces

By Abigail Fielding-Smith and — Financial Times,

KESWA, Syria — Anti-regime protesters in the Damascus suburbs gave an Arab League peace observers’ mission an ecstatic welcome Tuesday, but warned that President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces would attack as soon as they left.

After monitors crossed the sandbag-protected police post at the entrance to the main street of the Keswa district, people approached them first in a trickle and then a flood, desperate to tell their stories of family members arrested and killed.

Some of the women were in tears, while a man brandished a phone with a picture of a bloodied corpse he said was his son. Another man warned: “When you go from here, Bashar al-Assad’s terrorists will come here and kill us, just remember this!”

The outpouring underscored both the importance and the limitations of the much-criticized observers, on a day when a rebel army chief called for international military intervention to replace a mission he said had failed to halt a bloody crackdown by regime forces, and the United Nations Security Council members were preparing to debate a draft Syria resolution drawn up by Russia — one of Assad’s main international allies.

The observers arrived in Keswa — a protest hot spot less than an hour’s drive from Damascus — to a near-silence that was broken by one man’s shout of “the people want to hang the president!” as the convoy swept past.

Once the observers halted, residents began to emerge and the monitors were mobbed from all sides and left struggling to write down the stories they were being told, fragments of the dark tale of a 10-month uprising that has left an estimated 5,000 people dead. This brief protest was the first demonstration for more than a week in Keswa, residents said, after a crackdown by the security forces made people too afraid to come. “If there is a demonstration, it will be immediately shot at,” one man said.

People seemed genuinely grateful for the mission’s presence, using phone cameras to film the monitors’ orange jackets and the Arab League logos on their vehicles. Two of the observers were even lifted shoulder-high like sporting heroes.

For all the elation, the demonstrators were fully aware how temporary their feeling of security was likely to be and pointed to security force members at the end of the road and a building just off it, which they said was occupied by pro-government snipers.

The monitoring mission is supposed to be ensuring that violence against people such as the Keswa demonstrators stops altogether, but it has come in for widespread criticism. Riad al-Asaad, leader of the opposition Free Syrian army, told Reuters that — while he respected and appreciated the observers’ efforts — they had proved “incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime.”

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people died in protests Tuesday, while the state news agency said “terrorists” firing rockets had killed six soldiers at a checkpoint near the capital.

The monitors’ 165-person team, whose future will be debated by Arab League foreign ministers Sunday, is seen as too small to cover all the potential flashpoints in a country the size of Syria. According to one observer interviewed by the Financial Times at another location, the protocol governing their relations with the Syrian government does not allow them to do their job properly.

“By the time we’ve got through the red tape, half the security forces know where we’re going,” the monitor said. “Within the current protocol we can’t change anything.”

Not long after the observers left Keswa, quiet descended once more, and a man began blotting out the freshly-painted graffiti on a street where, an hour earlier, a man with a scarf over his face to protect his identity had muttered that he wanted NATO intervention in his troubled country.

He and his fellow protesters had disappeared to face their fears of the reaction of a regime that the international monitors seem to have had little success in holding in check.

“Today when you go I don’t know if I will still be alive,” said the man, who predicted the security forces would come in after the monitors left. “I don’t care, I don’t care.”

— Financial Times

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