* Tens of thousands of people protested in Homs as monitors
* Residents urged Arab observers to see signs of "slaughter"
* United States condemns "escalation of violence"
* Sudanese head of monitoring mission says Homs "reassuring"
By Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Arab League monitors aiming
to verify whether Syria is ending a military crackdown on
protesters said they saw "nothing frightening" in an initial
visit to the protest hotbed of Homs although a long
investigation would be needed.
Given the brief and limited nature of the monitors' tour on
Tuesday, the comments by the chief monitor could heighten the
concern of opposition activists that the observer mission could
be used as a cloak of respectability by Damascus, issuing
assessments whitewashing President Bashar al-Assad's record.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based
activist group, said security forces killed 15 people across the
country on Tuesday, six of them in Homs, coinciding with the
monitors' visit. Activists said 34 had been killed on Monday.
"Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing
frightening," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, the chief of the
monitoring contingent, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
"The situation seemed reassuring so far," he said on
Wednesday after his team's short visit to the city of one
million people, Syria's third largest and epicentre of nine
months of anti-Assad unrest.
"Yesterday was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not
see tanks but we did see some armoured vehicles. But remember
this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We
have 20 people who will be there for a long time."
Activists say about a third of the estimated 5,000 people
killed in unrest in Syria since the crackdown began in March
died at the hands of security forces in Homs. Dozens have been
reported killed in the past week.
The first group of monitors including Dabi were escorted by
Syrian authorities into Homs on Tuesday and shown destruction in
the restive district of Baba Amr, where Syrian tanks were filmed
firing into residential areas the day before, according to
amateur video recorded by activists.
Video reports, which cannot be independently verified, have
shown parts of Homs looking like a war zone. Constant machinegun
and sniper fire is audible and corpses are mangled by blasts.
Tanks have been filmed shelling anti-Assad targets in Baba Amr.
The Arab League says Dabi brings vital military and
diplomatic expertise to its unprecedented intervention in the
internal crisis of a member state.
But international human rights activists critical of
Khartoum say it is all but impossible to imagine a Sudanese
general involved in the Darfur conflict ever recommending strong
outside intervention, much less an international tribunal, to
respond to human rights abuses in a fellow Arab country.
Dabi has held senior Sudanese military and government posts,
including in the Darfur region where, the prosecutor of the
International Criminal Court says, Sudan's army committed war
crimes and the United Nations says 300,000 people may have died.
WASHINGTON CONDEMNS "INDISCRIMINATE FIRE"The U.S. State Department condemned what spokesman Mark Toner called an escalation of violence in Homs before the monitors' deployment.
"We have seen horrific pictures of indiscriminate fire,
including by heavy tank guns, and heard reports of dozens of
deaths, thousands of arrests, as well as beatings of peaceful
protesters," Toner said.
"The monitors should have unfettered access to protesters
and to areas most severely affected by the regime's
crackdown. They bear a heavy responsibility in trying to protect
Syrian civilians from the depredations of a murderous regime.
Emboldened by the monitors' first visit, about 70,000 Homs
protesters marched towards the city centre on Tuesday where
security forces fired shots and teargas at them, activists said.
The military withdrew some tanks shortly before the monitors
arrived, in what the activists called a ploy to persuade the
monitors that the city was calm. Video on the Internet showed
monitors confronted by residents imploring them to venture
further into Baba Amr as gunfire crackled around them.
Some fearful residents shouted "We want international
protection" at the monitors in a video posted on YouTube.
The monitors were due to make a second tour of Homs on
Wednesday. Crowds have pleaded for them to get a thorough look
at the most violent neighbourhoods. Tens of thousands of
protesters gathered on Tuesday in the Khalidiya district - one
of those yet to be visited by monitors.
One activist held up a sign that read: "We are afraid
(that)when the monitors leave, they will kill and bury us."
The observers' visit is the first international intervention
on the ground in Syria since the uprising began and protesters
hope what they witness will prompt world powers to take more
decisive action against Assad.
The Syrian leader says he is fighting an insurgency by armed
terrorists, and that most of the violence has been aimed at the
security forces who have lost some 2,000 men.
International journalists are mostly barred from Syria,
making it difficult to confirm accounts from conflict zones.
Activist reports just before the monitors arrived on Tuesday
said up to a dozen tanks were seen leaving Baba Amr and others
were being hidden to fashion an impression of relative normality
in the city while observers were around.
Armed insurgency is eclipsing civilian protest in Syria.
Many fear a slide to sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim
majority, the driving force of the protest movement, and
minorities that have mostly stayed loyal to the government,
particularly the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs.
Analysts say the Arab League is anxious to avoid civil war.
Western powers have shown no desire to intervene militarily in a
volatile region of Middle East conflict. The U.N. Security
Council is split, with Russia - a major arms supplier to Assad -
and China opposed to any hint of military intervention.
Assad's opponents appear divided on aims and tactics. He
still has strong support in important areas, including Damascus
and the second city Aleppo, and maintains an anti-Israel
alliance with Iran.
(Additional reporting by Ayman Samir; Editing by Mark Heinrich)