Head of Arab mission to Syria denies disarray; activists carrying aid stopped at border

Free Syrian Army members dress the body of a protester near the town of Qusair who they said was shot and killed by security forces during a demonstration. (Reuters)

The head of Arab League monitors in Syria dismissed as untrue on Thursday the comments of an Algerian observer who quit in disgust over continued violence in the country and slammed the mission as a “farce”, as Syrian authorities prevented a convoy of 200 opposition activists from entering Syria via Turkey with medical aid for victims of the ongoing uprising.

Security forces, meanwhile, killed as many as 25 people around the country on Thursday, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.

Anwar Malek was reported to have left the monitoring team this week and then criticized the Arab mission in media interviews, saying the Syrian government was still carrying out killings, detention and torture of those involved in a 10-month-old uprising.

“General Mohammed al-Dabi, the head of the Arab monitors’ mission to Damascus, has confirmed that what the monitor Anwar Malek said to a satellite channel does not relate to the truth in any way,” the Arab League said in a statement.

“Since he was assigned to the Homs team, Malek did not leave the hotel for six days and did not go out with the rest of the team into the field giving the excuse that he was sick,” the statement said, adding that Malek had asked to travel to Paris for treatment but then left suddenly on his personal account, according to Reuters.

The Arab League monitoring mission, now about 165 strong, began work on Dec. 26. Its task is to verify whether Syria is complying with an agreement to halt a military crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed.

Malek’s alleged resignation increased a sense of disarray in a mission already criticized for inefficiency and some of whose members came under attack this week from both Assad supporters and protesters.

Convoy of 200 activists stopped

Meanwhile, authorities prevented a convoy of 200 opposition activists Thursday from entering Syria via Turkey with medical aid for victims of the ongoing uprising, an AFP reporter at the border said.

Some of the activists said they had travelled from as far afield as the United States and western Europe in order to join the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ which included five buses and several cars.

Brandishing Syrian flags, the convoy was initially stopped by Turkish police at a lay-by, some 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Oncupinar customs gate in the southeastern Turkish town of Kilis.

And a delegation from the convoy which approached the border was later turned back by Syrian officials and returned empty-handed.

“Our delegation was denied entry and so we have decided to stay here until we reach a decision all together,” said Dalati Bilal, a 42-year-old Syrian-American businessman who had travelled to Turkey from California.

“If the Syrians refuse (to let us in) then we will just camp here until they allow us to. Our plan is to camp here tonight.”

“The whole idea of the convoy is to support the Syrian people inside, to show that we are with them even if it’s so little what we are doing. They are dying for freedom.”

Zeyna Adi, one of the organizers, told AFP that a second “Freedom Convoy” which had been hoping to enter Syria via Jordan was cancelled at “the last minute” after being blocked by the authorities there.

The convoy in Turkey had left for the border in mid-morning, travelling on from Gaziantep towards the border post which lies on the road leading towards Syria’s second city of Aleppo.

As they were stuck in Kilis, many of the activists began singing slogans denouncing the regime in Damascus of President Bashar al-Assad, including chants such as “Assad Will Go To Hell” and “Freedom Forever.”

The Syrian National Council, an umbrella organization including most of the opposition groups in Syria, have expressed its support for the convoy.

Turkey and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad, have been at the forefront of international criticism over the Damascus regime's bloody crackdown on protests.

Both Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have called on Assad to quit.

Turkey has also become a haven for many Syrian opposition activists since the start of the uprising some 10 months ago.

“Liquidating” journalists

The opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, accused the regime on Thursday of “liquidating” journalists in order to hush up what is happening in the country, a day after a French reporter was killed.

The SNC’s accusation came as France demanded an investigation into the death the previous day of Gilles Jacquier, 43, who worked for France 2 television, during a government-organized trip to the flashpoint city of Homs.

The SNC denounced the “murder” of Jacquier, saying it was a “dangerous sign that the authorities have decided to physically liquidate journalists in an attempt to silence neutral and independent media.”

The award-winning Jacquier was the first Western reporter to die in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March last year.

An AFP photographer said he was killed when a shell exploded among some 15 journalists covering demonstrations in Homs on a visit organized by the authorities.

Six Syrians were also reported killed, and several other people were wounded.

Anti-regime activists in Homs also said the authorities had orchestrated the attack, while state television blamed “a terrorist group” that had opened fire on the journalists and regime supporters.

Wissam Tarif, an Arab campaigner with international activist non-governmental organization Avaaz, undermined the government’s claims.

“The journalists were attacked in a heavily militarized regime stronghold. It would be hugely difficult for any armed opposition to penetrate the area and launch such a deadly attack,” he said.

Tarif also said the incident was an “unacceptable breach of the Arab League protocol,” to which Syria has committed itself and which requires journalists to have freedom to report across Syria.

“The regime has denied journalists free access to the country, forcing them to join press tours organized by the ministry of information and chaperoned closely by regime minders,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his government “expects the Syrian authorities to shed light on the death of a man who was simply doing his job: reporting.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the “deaths highlight once again the terrible price being paid by the people of Homs, as well as the courage of journalists who take great personal risks to bring to light what is happening to the people of Syria.”

And EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton joined global press watchdog Reporters Without Borders in demanding a rapid inquiry.

The SNC urged international organizations to deal with the “crimes perpetrated by the regime against Syrian and foreign journalists.”

Vowing to crush terrorism

Wednesday’s attack came hours after President Bashar al-Assad took to the streets of Damascus to address cheering crowds of supporters.

“Without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans,” Assad said during the rare public appearance in the capital’s Omayyad Square.

In a speech on Tuesday, he had vowed to crush “terrorism” with an iron fist, saying “regional and international parties” were trying to destabilize Syria.

That prompted opposition movements to accuse him of pushing Syria towards civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the 10 months of bloodletting.

The regime on Thursday released a picture of a man it said was the suicide bomber behind a Damascus attack on Friday that killed 26 people, and called for any information about his identity, the official SANA news agency said.

As the two sides remained polarized, demonstrations and killing continued.

In December, the United Nations estimated that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown since March.

Earlier, the Observatory said 2,000 students were demonstrating in the Damascus province town of Irbin to demand an end to the regime and the “bringing to justice of the murderers of the Syrian people.”

And Syrians were being called to demonstrate on Friday in support of the Free Syrian Army, which consists of deserters from the regular army and claims to have 40,000 men based in Turkey.

In Moscow, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said “there is information that NATO members and some Arab states of the Persian Gulf, acting in line with the scenario seen in Libya, intend to turn the current interference with Syrian affairs into a direct military intervention.”

Washington and Ankara may already be working on plans for a no-fly zone to enable armed Syrian rebel units to build up, he said.

In other developments, Turkish police prevented a convoy of about 200 Syrian activists from entering their country to deliver humanitarian aid, an AFP reporter said.

And the operations chief of the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria said two observers, an Algerian and a Sudanese, had quit, a day after an Algerian observer who quit was accused of making unfounded claims about the operation.

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