(Updates with protester deaths in second paragraph.)
Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Arab monitors moved to Syrian towns including Hama and Daraa today after a delegation to Homs was met with mass rallies following violence against protesters in the city.
At least 16 people died today in the countryside outside Damascus, at Duma, which is 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) north of the capital, and at Hama, said Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Two Syrian dissidents travelling to Homs to speak with the Arab League mission were among the people killed today, while seven others were wounded on the way from Duma, Merei said in a telephone interview.
“It’s important they have access to all areas,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington, even as the New York Times reported that monitors were being denied admittance to places of unrest. “We need to let this mission get up and running. It was just the first day. They just saw one small area within Homs.”
At least 36 people have died in violence across the country since yesterday, according to Merei. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since the unrest started in mid-March. President Bashar al-Assad has blamed the violence on foreign provocateurs and his forces have used tanks, armored vehicles and artillery to crush the uprising.
About 70,000 people had rallied in Homs a day before the arrival of the Arab League observers yesterday, with soldiers using tear gas and firing guns into the air to disperse the crowd. The delegation reported seeing “nothing frightening,” according to Mustafa Dabi, the Sudanese chief of the monitoring contingent, in a Reuters interview cited by Arab News.
Syria released 755 people who were arrested during protests, state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said yesterday, after New York-based Human Rights Watch charged that the government was moving as many as 600 detainees to military facilities where Arab League observers couldn’t access them.
“Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown,” Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement on the group’s website.
Syria agreed on Dec. 19 to allow a monthlong visit by the observers after the league imposed sanctions. The mission will establish an “operation room” to hear Syrian complaints and will also accept accounts via e-mail and telephone, Arab League Ambassador Mohamed El-Fateh El-Naserey said in a telephone interview. The Cairo-based organization, which represents 22 Arab states, is expected to deploy as many as 500 monitors.
Bloomberg News is unable to verify reports of violence as the Syrian government restricts foreign media access in the country and places curbs on journalists.
--With assistance from David Lerman in Washington. Editors: Digby Lidstone, Leon Mangasarian.
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