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Arab League monitor views child's corpse

From Joe Sterling and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
updated 8:49 PM EST, Wed December 28, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights criticizes Arab League mission's restrictions
  • The U.S. is consulting and engaged with the mission
  • Russia urges the Syrian government to allow the observers free movement
  • Security forces fire tear gas at Hama demonstrators, activists say

Cairo (CNN) -- An Arab League observer steps into a mosque in the city of Homs and is shown the tiny "martyr," one of thousands of people killed in Syria over the past nine months.

The 5-year-old boy was named Ahmad Mohammed al-Ra'i. His body is swathed in a blanket and laid out on a rug.

The scene came in an amateur video said to be from Homs, the western city besieged for weeks by Syrian security forces and engulfed in protests. CNN cannot verify reports from Syria because the government has restricted access to the country by international journalists.

The video shows a man wearing what appears to be the orange vest worn by Arab League observers. As he pulls out a camera, another man unwraps the blanket covering the body and rips a bandage from the boy's left shoulder blade, revealing what appears to be a bullet wound.

"Once I buried 22 martyrs," says a voice on the video. "And today I buried three people."

The video was one of several posted to YouTube that showed what appear to be the movements of the Arab League mission in Homs.

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Arab League monitor views child's corpse

The fact-finding team is monitoring an Arab League initiative that calls for President Bashar al-Assad's security forces to withdraw from cities, release detainees and end violence.

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The mission's work began Tuesday in Homs, where thousands of people turned out for anti-government demonstrations that coincided with the arrival of the monitors. The city, a center of the Syrian protest movement, had been under a military siege for days.

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Alaa Shalaby, a member of the Arab League team, said the monitors traveled Wednesday through the volatile neighborhood of Baba Amr and were planning to enter other parts of the city, including Khalidiah and Clock Square, where massive demonstrations were held Tuesday.

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They are to travel Thursday to other strife-torn cities -- Daraa, Idlib, Hama and Damascus.

Another Arab League source told CNN that 75 monitors were in Syria with more expected to arrive in coming days. A permanent team will remain in Homs, said the source, who asked not to be named.

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Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi, the head of the observer mission, is to arrive Thursday.

"We have received one report so far from the monitors regarding their findings," the Arab League source said. "They have faced challenges on the ground from Assad's men but no major issues that will affect their mission. When they arrived, many residents rushed at them and some invited them to their homes."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights expressed concern Wednesday over "aspects of the obvious failure marking the mission of the Arab Observers Committee in Syria."

In a statement, the opposition group cited the requirement that observers be accompanied by Syrian security forces and the requirement that Syrian security forces be given two hours' advance notice prior to the observers visiting a location.

And it said there were just not enough observers to do the job in a country of more than 1,200 villages, towns and cities. "Tens of observers are not enough to make their mission effective as to protect Syrian civilians, which is the real aim of the Arab Initiative," it said.

It called for the matter to be referred to the United Nations.

But a U.S. official urged that the mission be given time to do its job. "It's important that we let them get themselves squared away on the ground, get their mission up and running," U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Wednesday.

Toner said U.S. officials have no direct contact with the monitors, but expressed confidence that they will carry out their mission.

"We are working with the Arab League embassies there and we are, of course, engaging in Cairo with the Arab League headquarters there so we are consulting with them and we are engaged but this is an independent monitoring mission and we're going to let them carry out their duties," Toner said.

Violence erupted in Daraa prior to the monitors' visit there. Four Syrian forces members were killed and 12 were wounded there after defectors ambushed their convoy, according to the opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The London-based observatory said security forces arrested more than 20 people in Daraa, where the Syrian government crackdown began in mid-March.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition group with a network of contacts across the country, said security forces tear-gassed demonstrators in Hama and 7,000 demonstrators in Homs turned out to mourn two slain people. The group said demonstrations also took place in Damascus and its suburbs, as well as in Idlib, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.

The LCC said at least 14 people died Wednesday elsewhere in the country: five in Homs, two in Aleppo, two in Hama, two in the Damascus suburbs and one each in Daraa, Idlib and Latakia.

Bernard Valero, the French Foreign Ministry's spokesman, said the observers hadn't yet grasped the "reality of the situation in Homs."

"Their presence did not prevent the ongoing bloodshed of repression in this city where large demonstrations were violently repressed causing approximately 10 deaths," he said.

The monitors must be permitted "to circulate freely and have full access to the population" and world powers "will be vigilant against any attempt of concealment or manipulation," he said.

"The international community will only be reassured once violence has ceased, the army returns to its barracks, political prisoners are released and foreign journalists obtain visas to enter Syria," Valero said.

The government is releasing 755 detainees "who were involved in the recent events" but whose hands were "not stained with the blood of the Syrians," Syrian state TV said on Wednesday.

But a report from Human Rights Watch released Tuesday said authorities have moved possibly hundreds of detainees to military sites to hide them from the observers.

"Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Syria's subterfuge makes it essential for the Arab League to draw clear lines regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told the British newspaper The Independent last week that the international monitors could move around the country "under the protection" of the government but would not be permitted to visit sensitive military sites.

Human Rights Watch said it was told by a Syrian security officer in Homs that his prison director had ordered him to transfer about 400 to 600 detainees from his detention facility to other places.

"The transfers happened in installments," the official said, according to the group. "Some detainees were moved in civilian Jeeps and some in cargo trucks. My role was inside the prison, gathering the detainees and putting them in the cars. My orders from the prison director were to move the important detainees out," the official said, according to Human Rights Watch.

He said that officials told him the detainees were being taken to a military missile factory in Zaidal, outside of Homs.

The Syrian security officer also said the government has issued police identification cards to military officials, according to the human rights group. Providing police IDs to military personnel violates the Arab League initiative, which calls on the Syrian government to withdraw armed forces from cities and residential areas, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Arab League needs to cut through Syrian government deception by pushing for full access to anywhere Syria is holding detainees," Whitson said.

Opposition groups have criticized the Arab League for choosing al-Dabi as the head of the observer mission, citing his high position in a government responsible for atrocities in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

More than 5,000 people have died since al-Assad began the crackdown on anti-government protesters calling for his ouster, the United Nations said this month. But activist groups, including Avaaz and the LCC, put the toll at more than 6,000.

World powers such as the Arab League, Turkey, the European Union and the United States have pressured the al-Assad regime to end its crackdown. The U.N. Security Council, however, hasn't initiated a stiff resolution on the issue because of the threat of vetoes by Russia, a Syrian ally, and China.

But if the monitoring mission "relaxes the situation (in Syria) and helps create conditions for an inclusive dialogue" and a settlement of the problem, it could remove "the necessity of U.N. Security Council resolutions," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday.

In remarks reported by state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Lavrov urged the government to permit the observers "to visit any parts of the country and any residential areas in order to forge its own independent opinion about the situation."

CNN's Joe Sterling reported from Atlanta and Journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy reported from Cairo. CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali, Yasmin Amer, Karen Smith and Jill Dougherty also contributed to this report.

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