BEIRUT — The head of the Arab League warned Friday that Syria may be sliding toward civil war, as security forces fired on thousands of people who poured into the streets in support of army defectors who switched sides to try to topple President Bashar Assad. At least 10 people were killed, activists said.
Also Friday, an activist group said two foreign journalists and a translator were briefly detained near the Syrian capital, Damascus. The group, the Local Co-ordination Committees, had no further details. CBC News later confirmed that reporter Margaret Evans was briefly detained at a checkpoint, but has since been released.
Over the course of the 10-month-old uprising, much of the bloodshed has been from security forces firing on unarmed protesters. But in recent months breakaway soldiers have been attacking the Syrian military, and some opposition members have taken up arms against the regime, adding to the violence.
Despite that, Assad appears to maintain a firm grip on power in the face of growing international pressure to halt his crackdown and step down.
The Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, told The Associated Press that Assad’s regime was either not complying or only partially complying with an Arab League plan that Syria signed last month to end its crackdown.
“We are very concerned because there were certain commitments that were not complied with,” he said in Cairo, where the League is based. “If this continues, it may turn into civil war.”
The UN estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the bloodshed appalling and urged the Russian government to reconsider its stance in support of “someone who has turned into such an appalling dictator.”
Russia, a traditional Syrian ally, has blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s regime and threatening sanctions.
“The whole Arab League has come together and said it’s unacceptable and others need to listen to that and act on that at the UN Britain stands ready to do that,” Cameron said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 20,000 people demonstrated Friday in the northwestern province of Idlib. Security forces fired on protesters there as well as in the southern province of Daraa, the eastern region of Deir el-Zour and the central province of Homs. At least 10 people were killed, the Observatory said.
A video posted online by activists showed dozens of people marching in the Damascus neighbourhood of Midan, chanting “Freedom forever, despite you Assad!” Midan, which has seen frequent anti-regime protests, was hit by a suicide attack last Friday that killed 26 people.
It wasn’t clear who was behind that attack; the government blamed “terrorists” while the opposition suggested the regime orchestrated the blast to tarnish the uprising.
Another video posted Friday showed what appeared to be an armoured personnel carrier on fire in Homs. The narrator said army defectors attacked the vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Arab League plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country.
An Arab League team of observers began work in Syria on Dec. 27 to offer an outside view of whether the government is abiding by its agreement to end the military crackdown on dissent.
The mission has been plagued by problems, including accusations that the Syrian government is interfering with the team’s work. This week, one of the observers resigned and told the pan-Arab TV channel Al-Jazeera that the monitor mission was a “farce” because of Syrian government control.
Adnan al-Khudeir, head of the Cairo operations room to which the monitors report, told reporters Thursday that two more observers, from Algeria and Sudan, would be returning to their home countries. He did not identify them but said the Algerian gave health reasons and the Sudanese cited personal reasons.
Also on Friday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to neighbouring Lebanon, said he discussed the situation in Syria and its potential impact on the country. Ban urged Lebanese officials to welcome Syrian refugees so that they would not have to return to their troubled homeland.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.