Discuss as:

Arab League observers see 'nothing frightening' in Syria hotspot

AFP - Getty Images

A protester in Homs throws a tear gas bomb back towards security forces on Tuesday.

Campaigners expressed alarm Wednesday after Arab League observers in Syria said they saw "nothing frightening" during a visit to Homs, the city activists say is the epicenter of nine months of deadly clashes with government forces.

"Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, the chief of the monitoring contingent, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.


"The situation seemed reassuring so far," he added after his team's short visit to the city of one million people, Syria's third largest.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that security forces fired tear gas at tens of thousands of protesters in Homs, and that 40 people were killed in the city on Monday and Tuesday alone.

A video clip posted on the Internet on Tuesday appeared to show the monitors touring the Baba Amr district of the city as angry residents shouted at them and tugged on one monitor's jacket, pleading them to enter their neighborhoods as gunfire erupted in the background.

Amateur video appears to show government trucks leaving Homs, Syria following several days of violence. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

The Arab League obervers are checking whether Syria is keeping its promise to withdraw troops from cities and halt the violence that has threatened to spiral into civil war.

Foreign journalists and other observers are banned from Syria, making it difficult to verify claims by activists or the government.

However, the United Nations estimates 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since the nine-month crackdown on opposition protests began.

Meanwhile, live footage carried on al-Jazeera television on Wednesday also showed gunfire and black smoke rising above Syria's central city of Hama as dozens of men marched through the streets chanting" "Where are the Arab monitors?"

Cloak of respectability?
Given the brief and limited nature of the monitors' tour on Tuesday, the comments by the chief monitor could heighten the concern of opposition activists that the observer mission could be used as a cloak of respectability by Damascus, issuing assessments whitewashing President Bashar Assad's record. 

It also highlights concern over the choice of a Sudanese general to head the mission.

Dabi has held senior Sudanese military and government posts, including in the Darfur region, where the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court says the army carried out war crimes and the United Nations says 300,000 people may have died. Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity.

At least twenty people have been killed near Homs, Syria, as gunfire sweeps through the city for a third straight day. Msnbc military analyst Ret. Col. Jack Jacobs talks about the future of Syria's leadership.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, who studies Sudan and has written strong criticisms of its government, told Reuters the choice of a Sudanese general was a sign the Arab League might not want its monitors to produce findings that would force it to take stronger action.

"There is a broader question of why you would pick someone to lead this investigation ... when he is part of an army that is guilty of precisely the sort of crimes that are being investigated in Syria," Reeves said.

"I think a Sudanese general would be one of the least likely people in the world to acknowledge these findings even if they are right there before him... It doesn't make any sense unless you want to shape the finding. They want it shaped in ways that will minimize the obligation to do more than they already have."

'Shouting into a void'
A Baba Amr resident and activist, who gave his name as Omar, expressed frustration at the Arab League visit. "I felt they didn't really acknowledge what they'd seen -- maybe they had orders not to show sympathy," he said.

"But they didn't seem enthusiastic about hearing people tell their stories, we felt like we were shouting into a void."

"We placed our hopes in the entire Arab League," said Omar. "But these monitors don't seem to understand how the regime works, they don't seem interested in the suffering and death people have faced."

Amnesty International said Sudan's military intelligence, at the time Dabi led it, "was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan."

Jehanne Henry, Sudan researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that as head of Sudan's military intelligence in the 1990s, Dabi "certainly would have been in a position to know what the security services were doing at that time."

"He obviously does not fit the profile as a human rights monitor," she added.

"We have no confidence at all in the Arab League mission," Dr Mousab Azzawi told msnbc.com on Tuesday. "The very people investigating Syria are wanted for war crimes by the ICC -- it is some of bad joke."

The Arab League says Dabi brings vital military and diplomatic expertise to its unprecedented mission to verify that Assad is complying with a deal to end Syria's crackdown on protesters.

For its part, Khartoum says the accusations against Sudan's president are baseless and politically motivated, and puts the Darfur death toll at 10,000.

Reuters and msnbc.com's Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.