BEIRUT — In the largest protests Syria has seen in months, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in a display of defiance to show an Arab League observer mission the strength of the opposition movement.
Despite the monitors' presence in the country, activists said Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 22 people, most of them shot during the anti-government demonstrations.
In a further attempt to appeal to the monitors, dissident troops who have broken away from the Syrian army said they have halted attacks on regime forces to reinforce the activists' contention that the uprising against Assad is a peaceful movement.
While opposition activists are deeply skeptical of the observer mission, the outpouring of demonstrators across Syria underscores their wish to make their case to the foreign monitors and take advantage of the small measure of safety they feel they brought with them.
The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first that Syria has allowed into the country during the uprising, which began in March. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League's plan to end Assad's crackdown on dissent. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died as the government has sought to crush the revolt.
Friday's crowds were largest in Idlib and Hama provinces, with about 250,000 people turning out in each area, according to an activist and eyewitness who asked to be identified only as Manhal because he feared government reprisal. Other big rallies were held in Homs and Daraa provinces and the Damascus suburb of Douma, according to Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The crowd estimates could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the local media.
Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident and human rights defender, said the observers' presence has emboldened protesters to take to the streets in huge numbers.
"Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests – a basic condition of the Arab League peace plan," he told The Associated Press.
The observers began their mission Tuesday in Homs, often referred to by many Syrians as the "Capital of the Revolution." Since then, they have fanned out in small groups across Syrian provinces, including the restive Idlib province in the north, Hama in the center and the southern province of Daraa, where the revolt began.
The orange-jacketed observers have been seen taking pictures of the destruction, visiting families of victims of the crackdown, and taking notes.
On Friday, they were within "hearing distance" from where troops opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activist Salim al-Omar said. They later visited the wounded in hospital, he added.
Despite questions about the human rights record of the man leading the monitors, tens of thousands have turned out this week in cities and neighborhoods where they were expected to visit.
The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces, apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square. In general, activists say, security forces have launched attacks when observers were not present. But there have been some reports of firing on protesters while monitors were nearby.
Omar Shaker, an activist and resident of the battered neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, said the observers were "laughable," often walking around with outdated cameras and without pens.
"Still, the bombardment and killings have decreased here in their presence. We see them as a kind of human shields, that's all," he said.
Shaker said around 7,000 protested Friday in Baba Amr – the first demonstration in the besieged district in more than a week.
"People are feeling optimistic," he said. "We've been protesting and dying for 10 months. We have the feeling that the worst is over and the end is near," he added.
In Douma, up to 100,000 people protested Friday. Amateur videos posted on the Internet by activists showed demonstrators carrying away a bleeding comrade after being hit by a gas canister.
"Look, Arab League, look!" the cameraman is heard shouting. The British-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the regime used nail bombs against protesters in Douma. The report was confirmed by Douma activist al-Omar.
In another video, a huge crowd packed a main street in Homs, singing anti-Assad songs and dancing in unison. The crowd sang, "We will die in freedom," to the festive beat of a drum, as the unidentified cameraman proclaimed, "For months we didn't hear anything on Friday" because of the crackdown. "But because of the observer committee, they didn't fire a single bullet."
"Victory is close, god willing," he said.
Thousands turned out in the city of Idlib to welcome the observers, filling a large square, waving olive branches and flags, and chanting, "The people want the fall of Bashar."
But the ongoing violence in Syria, and questions about the human rights record of the head of the Arab League monitors, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, are reinforcing the opposition's view that Syria's limited cooperation with the observers is merely a ploy by Assad to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.
One of Assad's few remaining allies, Russia, voiced its approval of the observer mission so far, calling the situation "reassuring."
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab League observers began their one-month mission.
On Friday, activists said security forces fired on protesters in Daraa, Hama, Idlib and Douma. In the central city of Homs, six people who were reported missing a day earlier were confirmed dead.
The Observatory reported 22 people were killed nationwide, most of them shot while protesting. The Local Coordination Committees activist network reported 32 were killed. The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.
The Arab League plan, which Syria agreed to Dec. 19, demands that the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.
Pro-Assad groups turned out for rallies in Damascus and several other cities, waving portraits of the president, in an apparent bid to show that the regime has popular support.
Also Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it has stopped its offensive against government targets since the observers arrived, in a bid to avoid fueling government claims that it is facing armed "terrorists" rather than peaceful protesters.
"We stopped to show respect to Arab brothers, to prove that there are no armed gangs in Syria, and for the monitors to be able to go wherever they want," breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, leader of the FSA, told the AP by telephone from his base in Turkey.
"We only defend ourselves now. This is our right and the right of every human being," he said, adding that his group will resume attacks after the observers leave.
The Free Syrian Army says it has about 15,000 army defectors. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on government installations that have killed scores of soldiers and members of the security forces.