News / Middle East

    Thousands Rally in Syria as Arab League Chief Warns of Civil War

    Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Zabadani, near Damascus January 13, 2012. The placard reads, "Go, we want to go back to our schools".
    Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Zabadani, near Damascus January 13, 2012. The placard reads, "Go, we want to go back to our schools".

    The chief of the Arab League warned Friday that Syria may be heading towards a civil war as thousands of Syrians took to the streets in support of an armed rebel group.

    Arab League head Nabil Elaraby commented in interviews with The Associated Press and an Egyptian TV station while anti-government protesters voiced support for the Free Syrian Army, composed mainly of former soldiers.

    Activists say 20,000 gathered in the town of Ariha in the northwest Idlib province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says soldiers opened fire on protesters in the region, killing at least one person.

    The 10-month crackdown on anti-government protests has turned more violent in recent months as defecting soldiers have taken up arms against the government.

    Amateur video from Syria

    Amateur video released Friday shows an armored personnel carrier in flames after it reportedly was attacked by members of the Free Syrian Army. The content of the video posted on YouTube can not be independently verified.

    Elaraby spoke after at least 11 members of the Arab League observer mission were injured by pro-Assad supporters earlier this week. Meanwhile, one observer quit the monitoring team, calling it a "farce," and activists told VOA that 11 members are expected to quit the mission soon.

    Foreign observers have been operating in Syria since December 26 to check President Bashar al-Assad's compliance with an Arab League plan to end his violent suppression of the uprising that began last year.

    The United Nations and the United States say killings of protesters by Syrian security forces have intensified since the monitoring mission began. But Elaraby denied the charge Friday in an interview with the Egyptian Al-Hayat television channel.

    Meanwhile, Turkey's foreign minister said a Russian ship carrying "dangerous cargo" has arrived in Syria, after being temporarily held in Cyprus. Cypriot media reported on Wednesday that authorities had intercepted a vessel carrying ammunition from St. Petersburg in Russia to Syria during a fuel stop. Media reports said the ship was carrying up to 60 tons of ammunition and explosives.

    The United States said on Friday that is had raised concerns with Russia and Cyprus about the issue. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated U.S. calls for all countries who continue to trade and supply weapons with Syria to stop.

    The United Nations estimates at least 5,000 people have been killed in the uprising, many of them peaceful protesters attacked by Syrian security forces. Others have been killed in fighting between the Syrian military and the army defectors who have joined the rebellion in recent months.

    Earlier this week, the first Western journalist was killed in Syria during a government-organized trip to Homs. Paris prosecutors said Friday that a preliminary investigation has been launched into the death of the France-2 Television reporter. Damascus also has said it will investigate the death.

    Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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