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Syria toll rises to 25; monitors cheered in besieged town

From Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 5:31 AM EST, Mon January 16, 2012
Opposition supporters turn out in force in Zabadani, Syria.
Opposition supporters turn out in force in Zabadani, Syria.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 32 reported killed in the latest attacks
  • Arab League monitors cheered in the town of Zabadani
  • Ban Ki-moon calls on Bashar al-Assad to "Stop the violence. Stop killing your people"
  • State media: Al-Assad grants amnesty to all crimes committed by anti-government protesters

Zabadani, Syria (CNN) -- Crowds in a Syrian town surrounded by government troops cheered Arab League monitors who visited Sunday as others fled the town on foot to escape the fighting inside.

Residents of Zabadani, about 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Damascus, lifted one of the monitors onto their shoulders and passed him around the crowd during Sunday's visit. They told CNN that their water and electricity had been cut off for the past three days, and they showed off wounds they said had been inflicted by pro-government forces.

The monitors got a different reception from Syrian soldiers, who berated them as the soldiers carried off the body of one of their comrades they said had been shot by opposition forces.

The visit came as another 32 people were killed by government troops trying to crush a 10-month-old uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition umbrella group. The toll included 13 in Homs, the scene of some of the worst fighting to date; 10 in the city of Idlib; and three people, inlcuding a child, in Hama.

Arab League monitors under fire in Syria
Empty streets and tension in Hama, Syria
Monitor: 'No civil war' in Syria
CNN's Robertson on his trip into Syria

During a visit to neighboring Lebanon, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered a blunt message to al-Assad: "Stop killing your people." Meanwhile, al-Assad announced that he was granting amnesty to anti-government demonstrators for "all crimes committed" since the uprising began last March, Syrian state-run media reported.

In Zabadani, a CNN crew heading into the city with the Arab League monitors saw men, women and children trudging out of the city to get away from the fighting. When the monitors prepared to leave, many of the thousands who greeted the monitors in town urged them to stay, warning that attacks by government troops would resume once they left.

Some offered to show the monitors where Syrian tanks were hidden in the fields surrounding the city. Syria was required to pull heavy weaponry out of the cities under the agreement its signed with the Arab League in November, but Zabadani residents said the tanks pulled back only when the monitors were on their way.

Fares Mohammed, an LCC spokesman, said about 100 armored vehicles had surrounded the city for three days, and that power and water had been cut off as the city faced sub-freezing temperatures. A member of the Free Syria Army -- composed mostly of deserters who are siding with the opposition -- said there were about 70 lightly armed fighters in the city. The fighter asked not to be named for security reasons.

"The situation is very bad. The siege is choking us, and even air is running out," the fighter said, adding that fighters were setting up roadblocks to try to keep government forces out of residential areas.

On their way out of town, the monitors were held up at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Zabadani for about an hour and a half as occasional bullets whizzed by. During that time, Syrian troops carried off the body of a fellow soldier who had just been shot and turned their anger on the monitors.

"Is this what you want?" one asked. "Is this what the world wants? Is this a free Syria?"

More gunfire erupted as the monitors left town, and a soldier at another checkpoint rushed out to hammer at their vehicle.

More than 5,000 people have died since mid-March, the United Nations has said. Opposition groups put the toll at more than 6,000. Al-Assad, who has characterized the anti-government protesters as "armed gangs," says his security forces are battling terrorists intent on targeting civilians and fomenting unrest.

His latest amnesty decree follows the recent release of 5,000 prisoners by the Syrian government under its agreement with the Arab League. It grants grants general amnesty for crimes committed between March 15, 2011, and January 15, 2012, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

The decree applies to people who engaged in peaceful demonstrations, carried or possesses unlicensed weapons or ammunition and draft evaders, SANA said. Fugitives must hand themselves in by the end of the month to benefit from the amnesty, the agency reported.

It is the second time al-Assad has granted a general amnesty to protesters, who have been calling for an end to the regime. But reports of carnage mount every day, despite the presence of Arab League observers in the country and international calls for a halt to the crackdown.

"Today, I say again to President Assad of Syria: Stop the violence. Stop killing your people," Ban said at a conference on political reform and democracy in Beirut. "The path of repression is a dead end."

CNN cannot verify accounts of what is happening in Syria because the government restricts the activity of journalists. A number of journalists have been allowed in to the country in recent days, including a CNN correspondent, to travel with Arab League monitors.

The Arab League mission began December 26 and is expected to conclude on January 19. It has been mired in controversy from the start, from the choice to head the mission -- Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, once the head of Sudan's military intelligence -- to reports that the Syrian government was limiting the group's access.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.

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