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09 December 2023

Syrians ring in New Year with more anti-regime demos

Protesters cover their faces from tear gas being fired in Adlb. (REUTERS)


Syrian pro-democracy protesters saw the New Year in with demonstrations in several flashpoint centres, activists said Sunday, as more deaths were reported in the regime's crackdown on dissent.

Arab League officials monitoring violence meanwhile appeared to be in conflict over whether government snipers are perched on rooftops in the southern protest hub of Daraa, where the uprising started in mid-March.

"The youths of the revolution held huge and simultaneous protests overnight to welcome the New Year" across Syria, said the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) network of activists.

Protesters took to the streets in Daraa, Idlib and Aleppo in the north, in the mostly Kurdish city of Qamishli in the northeast and in Zabadani near Damascus, the LCC said in a statement received by AFP in Nicosia.

"May 2012 bring us all peace, safety and a promise of a free Syria," the LCC said after more than nine months of anti-regime protests and a lethal regime crackdown on dissent that has killed thousands of people.

"The Local Committees corroborated in the year 2011, exactly 5,862 martyrs, including 321 male children, 74 female children and 146 women," the group said in another statement.

United Nations estimates unveiled in early December had also put the death toll in Syria at more than 5,000.

On Saturday three more civilians were reported killed by gunfire from regime forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday, including two shot dead by snipers in the flashpoint province of Homs.

Activists have accused the regime of posting snipers on rooftops as part of their brutal crackdown on dissent, in which government forces have also been accused of firing tear gas, stun grenades and on Friday "nail bombs."

But the issue of snipers appears to have triggered a dispute among the Arab League observers deployed since last Monday in Syria to implement a peace plan to end the bloodshed.

In a video released by the Observatory, a man wearing an orange vest with the Arab League logo said in Daraa: "There are snipers; we have seen them with our own eyes."

"We ask the authorities to remove them immediately; if they don't remove them within 24 hours there will be other measures," the unnamed speaker in the video, which was dated Friday, told a crowd of people.

But veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, who is heading the observer mission, said the official seen in the video was making a hypothetical remark.

"This man said that if he saw -- by his own eyes -- those snipers he will report immediately," Dabi told the BBC's Newshour programme. "But he didn't see (snipers)."

Arab monitors are on a month-long mission to implement a plan calling for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

A first deployment of 50 monitors have been touring since Tuesday protest hubs but their mission has been cloaked in controversy, with some Syrian opposition activists critical of Dabi.

For some the general is a controversial figure because he served under Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed in the Darfur region.

The general ruffled opposition feathers by saying Syrian authorities were so far cooperating with the mission and by describing his visit to the flashpoint city of Homs as "good."

Rights activists have urged the Arab monitors to do more to protect civilians from regime forces.

Meanwhile two key Syrian opposition factions -- the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) -- have inked a deal to bolster a united front against the regime.

Friday's agreement also lays the ground rules for a transitional period as dissidents eye the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

A statement by the NCB said the agreement would be submitted to the Arab League ahead of a congress of Syrian opposition forces to be held later this month under the aegis of the pan-Arab bloc.