HARASTA, Syria (Reuters) - When Arab League observers headed to the suburbs of Damascus Thursday, Syrian security refused to accompany them to most areas, because they are no longer in control there.
In some towns no more than a 15-minute drive from the capital, the governor of rural Damascus warned that gunmen were walking the streets.
But the monitors went, accompanied by journalists, to the outskirts of Irbin and Harasta, which have become hotbeds for protests and armed revolt since the 10-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began.
At a checkpoint on an intersection heading into the town of Irbin, dozens of soldiers with assault rifles were deployed in full gear and on alert. On the sidewalk near them lay the bodies of two men shot dead, one of them a soldier.
But the soldiers were fixated nervously on the anti-Assad protest just hundreds of meters away, with protesters chanting “Allahu Akbar.” Most shops were closed and people gave the Arab League monitors suspicious looks.
“Some people are angry with us because of the report,” one observer said.
The observer team sent a report last week on their mission to check implementation of an Arab peace plan that aims to halt bloodshed from Assad’s military crackdown on the unrest that the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people.
Syria says the revolt is run by foreign-backed militants that have killed over 2,000 of its forces.
While the Arab League came out with a strong statement calling for Assad to step down, many in the Syrian opposition were angry at the monitors’ report, which highlighted violence by Assad’s adversaries as much as by the government itself.
They said monitors neglected the balance of power in the struggle between protesters and rebels against the army.
Reuters, which joined the monitors on their first observation trip since the report, is in Syria on a state-sponsored trip and is usually accompanied by a government minder.
The Arab observers watched the anti-Assad demonstration from afar, and minutes later they drove away toward a police hospital in Harasta, another flashpoint in the revolt.
The team head, Jaafar al-Kubaida, said the monitors did not enter Irbin because they were worried the “angry crowd” might harass them. “Teams are harassed sometimes, we feared they might attack the cars or throw stones at us. It has happened before.”
At the police hospital in Harasta, the staff said most of rural Damascus was not controlled by the government forces and gunmen were kidnapping and killing those affiliated with the government in those areas.
“Any car plate that belongs to the government cannot drive inside Harasta, we as doctors cannot go, they hijacked one of our cars a week ago,” said a doctor in the hospital.
A soldier pointed at a mosque facing the checkpoint and said, “You see that mosque? Their snipers sometimes fire at us from there.”
A senior officer said that security forces were in talks with the armed men through dignitaries in the towns, hoping to convince them to hand over their weapons. He said the government had not completely lost control of the Damascus countryside.
“No, you cannot say that they are in control of rural Damascus, they control areas and the army control areas,” he told Reuters.
When Arab observers pressed a senior officer to allow them entry into the troubled town, he said it was too dangerous.
“The coordination (team) did not get back to us, we told them you wanted to go but still no reply from them, We want you to go to them under their protection,” a senior officer told the monitors.
The monitors were frustrated they could not enter, but also said they were unsure if their presence was wanted after their first report. “We would love to go, but I’m not sure we are welcomed there,” one observer told Reuters.
Security officials showed monitors three cars which they said were towed from inside Harasta and Douma. They said the vehicles were confiscated from “terrorists” and loaded with Israeli bombs.
Inside Harasta, the army was heavily deployed. Dozens of soldiers in full gear were deployed in a 500-metre (1,650-foot)-long street, their guns pointed up as they nervously watched the nearby houses. People peeked from their windows but few went out. The trash-littered streets was almost deserted.
“Free Syria” was written on a wall.
“Yes, it is not safe,” said a veiled woman who was walking a man down the street. She looked worried and scared. “There are gunmen but we do not have the Free Syria Army here.”