BEIRUT — A team of Arab League monitors began its second day of work in Syria on Wednesday as the death toll continued to climb in the restive cities of Homs and Hama and questions mounted about the observers’ methods and credibility.
The delegation, which was in Homs, is tasked with observing whether Syrian authorities are upholding an agreement to withdraw troops from cities, free political prisoners and end the use of deadly force to quell a nine-month-old uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
On the monitors’ first day in Homs, residents gathered by the thousands to demonstrate against the government and plead for help from the outside world.
Saleem al-Qabani, a member of the Local Coordination Committees opposition group, said in a telephone interview that he had canceled a planned meeting with the observers because they insisted on having army officers with them, including at least one whom Qabani said he recognized as having killed protesters.
The monitors said they had met with ruling Baath Party members in the flash-point Baba Amr neighborhood, Qabani said.
Another activist, who is in contact with people in the area, said government forces fired from buildings in Baba Amr while observers were nearby.
Because Syria has closed its borders to journalists, it is not possible to independently confirm such reports.
Also Wednesday, Syrian state media reported the release of 755 prisoners who had been arrested during the protests. More than 2,500 detainees also were reportedly released last month. But human rights activists say that many more have been arrested and that the state has not provided a comprehensive list of detainees.
Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said the release of some prisoners was a good sign. But she expressed concern about reports obtained by the rights group that other detainees were being moved, possibly in advance of planned inspections by the monitors.
Whitson also raised concerns about whether the Arab League monitors are properly qualified for their mission. About 60 monitors are in Syria, with more due to arrive. Their names have not been released. She said the Arab League should have offered some assurances that the group had received training in human rights investigations before being deployed to Syria.
“It’s not enough to have once been in government. They need training in finding things that governments are trying to hide,” Whitson said.
Specifically, Whitson questioned what she called “troubling” information about the head of the delegation, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, a veteran of the Sudanese intelligence service.
A Facebook group of Damascus-based doctors said Dabi was a senior army officer in the 1990s, when Sudanese forces played a brutal role in their counntry’s ethnic war. “Many questions were raised about his knowledge of Darfur massacres,” a statement by the group said.
The Arab League did not respond to requests for comments about how its monitors were selected and trained, or the circumstances under which they are conducting their mission.
Opposition activists said shelling and gunfire continued in Homs on Wednesday, killing at least three people. They also reported troops opening fire on unarmed protesters in Hama, killing at least six.
But Dabi told Reuters news agency that “the situation seemed reassuring so far” in Homs and that he had seen “nothing frightening.”
“But remember, this was only the first day, and it will need investigation,” Dabi added. “We have 20 people who will be there for a long time.”
With little international appetite for intervention or a no-fly zone — but a dwindling arsenal of non-military solutions — global leaders have vocally supported the work of the Arab League.
Diplomats called Wednesday for the delegation to be able to do its work without interference.
“Used to the dilatory maneuvers of the Damascus regime, the international community will be vigilant in the face of all attempts at dissimulation or manipulation,” Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said in Paris.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose government until recently was a staunch ally of Assad, told reporters: “The mission should be able to visit any part of the country, any towns or villages, and come up with its own independent, objective opinion about what is happening and where.”
Correspondent Edward Cody in Paris contributed to this report.