Deaths of civilians are being reported from continued violence across Syria, amid more defiance from President Bashar al-Assad and criticism of the Arab League’s observer mission by one of its own monitors.
At least nine people, including a French journalist, were killed and several more were wounded in an explosion that struck a government-organised media trip to Homs, an opposition stronghold.
The news of the deaths came just hours after Assad appeared at a rally in Damascus on Wednesday to show popular support and a government in control.
Separately, the Arab League announced that it was delaying sending more monitors to the country after an attack on its team this week.
The Arab League currently has 165 observers in Syria, and recently said it would increase the numbers.
One observer who has just resigned told Al Jazeera on Wednesday the Arab League mission was a farce.
Anwar Malek, an Algerian national, said he resigned because of what he saw, and that the mission was falling apart.
Gilles Jacquier of France 2 television became on Wednesday the first Western reporter to be killed in 10 months of unrest in the country.
Syrian state media said nine people were killed in an apparent mortar attack in the city of Homs, while a Belgian reporter was among 25 others injured.
According to an AFP news agency reporter at the scene, Jacquier was fatally wounded when a shell exploded as the group of journalists were covering demonstrations in the city.
|Ian Black, Middle East editor of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, was in Homs when the attack took place|
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, condemned the killing and called on Syrian authorities to shed “full light” on the circumstances of his death.
In Hama, another Syrian dissident area, military forces on Wednesday killed 13 people as they stormed the province hunting for army defectors, a leading opposition activist in Damascus told DPA.
Earlier, Assad, in his second speech in as many days, reiterated his accusations that the “homeland was reeling under the brunt of conspiracy”.
Nevertheless, “the Syrians will undoubtedly triumph over the conspiracy, which is nearing its end,” Assad told thousands of cheering supporters at a rally in Damascus’ Umayyad Square.
Late on Wednesday, the Arab League said it was postponing a decision to send more observers to Syria after 11 of its monitors were injured in an attack earlier this week.
“The Arab League will not send more observers to Syria for the time being until the situation calms down,” an unnamed official of the regional bloc told Al Jazeera.
In his interview to Al Jazeera, Anwar Malek, the former Arab League observer in Syria, said: “What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people
“What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people,” he said.
“The snipers are everywhere shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and none were released.”
Malek said that security forces did not withdraw their tanks from the streets, but just hid them and then redeployed them after the observers left.
Syria says it is continuing to provide security for the observers and has condemned any act that obstructed their work.
Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, repeated on Wednesday that Syria would protect the observers.
Anwar Malek, an Arab League observer who has just resigned, tells Al Jazeera the mission in Syria is a farce
Speaking after a meeting in Damascus with the head of the mission, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, Moallem pledged “full co-operation”, according to the official SANA news agency.
But Malek told Al Jazeera that the Assad government was not assisting observers with their requests.
“The regime didn’t meet any of our requests, in fact they were trying to deceive us and steer us away from what was really happening, towards insignificant things,” he said.
Malek said those who were supposedly freed and were shown on TV, were actually people who had been randomly grabbed off the streets.
“They were detained for four or five days in tough conditions and later released as if they had been real prisoners,” he said.
Malek said that he had seen snipers on top of buildings: “On one, there were even army officers in front of the building, while snipers were on the roof.
“Some on our team preferred to maintain good relations with the regime and denied that there were snipers,” he said.
He said Assad’s government “has gained a lot of time that has helped it implement its plan … Therefore I’ve decided to withdraw from this mission”.
The UN has said more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since protests against Assad began last March. Assad says “terrorists” have killed 2,000 members of his security forces.