AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian troops’ response to anti-government protests after Friday prayers will be a litmus test of the president’s agreement with the Arab League to stop shooting and open talks with the protesters, opposition leaders said.
Dozens of civilians were killed in the city of Homs on Thursday, activists said, a day after Syria agreed to an Arab League plan to pull the army out of cities, free political prisoners and hold talks with opposition leaders.
Syria is under mounting outside pressure to halt its seven-month crackdown on mass demands for political reforms and President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.
In Homs Thursday, tanks pounded a residential district and a witness who declined to be named said he saw dozens of civilian bodies at the National Hospital, which is controlled by the security forces.
The circumstances of their death were not clear. “They were all males with bullet wounds. A doctor told me they came from all over Homs,” he said.
Activists said a further 19 people were killed in tank shelling of the Bab Amro district, a center of pro-democracy protests against Assad, and in shooting by snipers and soldiers elsewhere in Homs, a city of one million.
There was no independent confirmation of the killings. Tough restrictions on the media have made it hard to verify events on the ground since protests against Assad began in March, inspired by other revolts against autocratic Arab rulers.
“We have already seen the regime’s bloody response to the Arab initiative today in the form of intensified shelling on Homs, just after it had agreed to pull out its troops from urban areas and stop violence against the civilian population,” said Ahmad Ramadan, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council.
“The way the regime reacts to protests tomorrow will also be important toward gauging its commitment to the initiative. If its forces keep firing on protesters, Arab states may be forced to take a more decisive position and support the case for international protection for civilians,” Ramadan told Reuters.
The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in the crackdown. The authorities blame the violence on Islamist militants and armed gangs who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Western sanctions and growing criticism from Turkey and Arab neighbors have raised pressure on Syria to end the bloodshed.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who heads the Arab League committee behind the plan agreed in Cairo, said on Thursday: “We are happy to have reached this agreement and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately.”
The United States said Thursday it saw no evidence that Syria was taking steps to fulfill the Arab League deal, and said failure to do so would increase the pressure on Damascus.
“This Assad regime has a long deep and continued history of broken promises and it has significant blood on its hands,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“We have not seen any evidence that the Assad regime intends to live up to the commitments it has made ... We have no evidence to indicate that they’re withdrawing from anywhere at this stage,” Nuland said.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby briefed members of the Syrian National Council on the plan in Cairo Thursday.
“We did not talk with the secretary-general about a dialogue with the regime,” council member Samir Nashar was quoted by Egypt’s MENA news agency as saying after the meeting.
“We discussed entering negotiations with the authorities to move from a totalitarian to a democratic system, and demanded that President Assad leaves power.”
Sami Baroudi, a political analyst at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said it was too early to judge whether Syria would honor the agreement.
“It will take at least a couple of days to see whether the intensity of violence is going down or up, or staying at the same level,” Baroudi said. “I wouldn’t throw this initiative into the waste basket because nothing happened immediately.”
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut; editing by Tim Pearce