BEIRUT — Activists accused the Syrian regime Wednesday of misleading Arab League observers by taking them to areas loyal to the government, changing street signs to confuse them and sending regime supporters into rebellious neighborhoods to give false testimony.
The monthlong observer mission, which started Dec. 27, offers a rare outside glimpse into a country where a government crackdown on a 9-month-old uprising has killed more than 5,000 people. But there are fears Assad loyalists have corrupted the observer process beyond repair.
There was no immediate comment from the Arab League. But Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi denied the allegations.
"We don't interfere in the mission's job," Makdissi told The Associated Press, adding that government escorts are necessary to protect the observers.
Activists also said regime loyalists are painting military vehicles blue to make them look like police vehicles — a ploy that allows the government to claim it has pulled the army out of heavily populated areas in accordance with the Arab League plan that was supposed to end the government's crackdown on dissent.
The plan requires the government to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners. Syria agreed to it on Dec. 19, paving the way for the observers to enter. About 100 monitors are in the country now to assess whether the regime is complying.
But the Arab League has acknowledged that killings have gone on, even with the observers on the ground. Activists put the death toll at more than 400 people since Dec. 21.
As the observers continued their work on Wednesday, security forces and pro-government gunmen shot dead at least 12 people, nine of them in central Homs province, activist groups said.
The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, told reporters in Cairo that the League will not cut short the observers mission in Syria. An Arab diplomat said Tuesday that the 22-member organization would consider pulling out of Syria because the killings were continuing despite the observers' presence.
"Our mission is important and we made a commitment before the Syrian regime" to carry it out, Elaraby said. "We will continue the one-month mission, and in this month we will accomplish many things, but for now we are hoping to assess the situation."
The League has claimed some victories for the monitors, including the withdrawal of heavy weapons from cities and release of thousands of prisoners.
But Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to verify any claims from either side.
Interviews with activists and eyewitnesses over the past week indicate there have been clear signs of interference with the mission.
"The observers are going to areas known to be loyal to the regime," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Another activist, Syria-based Mustafa Osso said the regime is mostly taking the observers to calm areas and changing street signs so that the monitors go to the wrong neighborhoods.
"Since the mission started the regime is limiting their (observers') movements and when they go out they are under the protection and supervision" of Syrian security, he said.
A resident of Homs, which has been one of the main centers of opposition to the regime, said buses carrying dozens regime supporters arrived in his neighborhood of Khaldiyeh last week shortly before the observers arrived. The crowds pretended they were residents and gave testimonials to the observers, said the resident, who witnessed the scene.
"All this happened as the monitors' Syrian escorts prevented the real residents from reaching the observers," said the man, who asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. He added that the observers set up an office in a school in a pro-regime neighborhood, which meant nobody dared go to the office to tell of their experiences.
The Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, said the management at the Homs Central Prison tried to trick four League observers who were there to interview political detainees. According to the LCC, the observers were brought instead to the wing where drug convicts are held.
"The political detainees protested and chanted for the regime's ouster, (and) the observers heard them and entered their cells and got information about each of them, his name and why he has been arrested," the LCC said in a statement.
Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the Arab League mission, saying it is simply giving Assad cover for his crackdown. The LCC
The observer mission's Sudanese chief, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, has raised particular concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Critics also say the mission is far too small — and too dependent on government escorts — to be effective. The regime says the escorts are vital to the monitors' personal safety.
The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising by reform-seekers but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs — a contention most international observers dismiss as an attempt by an autocratic regime to terrify its citizens into abandoning the revolt.
The monitoring mission will issue its first findings Sunday during a meeting in Cairo, where the Arab League is based.
Arab League official Adnan al-Khudeir, who heads the operations room that the monitors report to, said this week that initial reports indicate "noticeable progress."