DAMASCUS: Regime forces fired on protesters at a protest hub near Damascus and killed at least 13 people around Syria on Thursday, even as peace monitors spread out across the country, activists said.
At least four demonstrators were killed and more than 20 others wounded in Douma, the protest centre just north of the capital, when security forces sprayed protesters with bullets outside a mosque, a rights group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shooting broke out as Arab League observers arrived at Douma’s city hall, on the third day of a mission designed to halt a lethal government crackdown on dissent.
The monitors were due Thursday to visit flashpoints around Damascus, as well as the northern and central cities of Idlib and Hama and southern Daraa province.
Daraa is the cradle of an unprecedented nine-month protest movement against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for 11 years.
Activists say that more than 70 civilians have been killed by security forces since a first group of monitors arrived Monday in Syria on a month-long renewable mission to implement an Arab League peace plan.
"A fourth civilian wounded by gunfire from the security forces has died of his injuries and there are many injured people in critical condition," in Douma said the Britain-based group.
Gunfire rattled in Douma where "tens of thousands" of protesters rallied outside the Grand Mosque and regime forces opened fire on the demonstrators "as Arab observers arrived at the city hall," it said.
The Observatory also reported that security forces shot dead three people in the Damascus suburbs of Aarbin and Kiswah, and two more people further north in Idlib province, while four others died in the central city of Hama.
"Security forces are raiding a private hospital in Hama and are arresting the wounded," it said.
"Huge protests" also took place in Hama’s Hamidiyeh and Bab Qubli neighborhoods, said the watchdog.
Emboldened by the presence of observers, Facebook activists are urging regime opponents to take to the streets across Syrian on Friday, the weekly day of rest that has been a pivotal time for democracy protests.
"On Friday we will march to the squares of freedom, bare-chested," they said.
"We will march as we did in Homs and Hama where we carried olive branches only to be confronted by Bashar’s gangs who struck us with artillery and machinegun fire," said the Syria Revolution 2011 activists.
The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, said protesters needed to make their voices heard to the monitors, describing them as a "ray of light" in a dark tunnel.
"The Arab League’s initiative is the only ray of light that we now see," Abdel Rahman told AFP.
"The presence of the observers in Homs broke the barrier of fear."
On Tuesday, when a group of observers entered Homs, on the first leg of their mission to end bloodshed in Syria, some 70,000 people flooded the streets, according to activists.
Security forces showered them with gunfire and tear gas and the monitors cut short their visit to Homs, described by activists as the "martyr" city where hundreds have died in a government crackdown since March.
France, the United States and Human Rights Watch have warned the Syrian regime against trying to hide the facts from the monitors and Paris charged the team was not being allowed to see what was happening in Homs.
Those concerns were highlighted when Baba Amro residents on Wednesday refused to allow in observers in because they were accompanied by a Syrian army officer. But the standoff ended when the officer withdrew.
General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi, a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer who is heading the observer mission, has told AFP the visit Homs was "good" and Syrian authorities were cooperating so far.
His remarks reportedly triggered ripples of discontent among opposition ranks but Abdel Rahman said it was too early to issue any judgment.
For some Dabi 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 mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria after weeks of stalling which also calls for the withdrawal of armed forces from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence and the release of detainees.
According to UN estimates announced in early December, more than 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown on dissent since mid-March.
Egypt’s MENA news agency meanwhile reported the head of the opposition Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun met with Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Arabi in Cairo for talks ahead of conference on the Syrian opposition to be hosted by the League next month.