BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government tanks and armored vehicles have pulled back from an embattled mountain town near Damascus, activists and witnesses said Thursday, but at least 16 people were killed by security forces elsewhere as a monthlong Arab League fact-finding mission expired.
The pullback from Zabadani left the town under the control of the opposition, activists said. The besieged town of Zabadani has witnessed heavy exchanges of fire between army troops and anti-government military defectors over the past six days.
The 10-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has turned increasingly militarized and chaotic as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces. The capital has seen three suicide bombings since late December which the government blamed on terrorist extremists.
Arab League foreign ministers will consider extending the League's observer mission in Syria in a meeting Sunday in Cairo, officials said Thursday.
Although the mission expired Thursday, Adnan al-Khudeir, head of Cairo operations room that handles reports by the monitors, told The Associated Press that observers will remain in Syria until a decision is made on Sunday.
According to al-Khudeir, the meeting chaired by the Qatari foreign minister will discuss a report by the head of the mission Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi who is arriving in Cairo from Syria on Thursday.
The monitors will remain in 17 different places around Syria until the Arab League makes a final decision, he says.
"If there is a decision to extend the mission of the observers, we are ready to send more monitors after training them in three days," he said, adding that the total number of monitors might reach 300.
The mission has been mired in controversy, with the opposition claiming it served as a cover for the regime to continue its brutal crackdown against protesters.
Rejecting charges that the observers have been ineffective in reducing violence, he said extending the mission would help the opposition more than the regime.
"The killings are less, the protests increase," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made. "The mission's presence offers assurance to the people because the observers can spot any violations. There is a conviction even among Syria opponents that the extension is better than withdrawal."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday the monitors have had a "mixed picture" of results, enabling some protests and some media coverage.
"We believe that we've got to increase the economic pressure on the Assad regime to change course," she said.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising erupted last March.
Activists reported continued violence Thursday. In Damascus, a Syrian security agent was wounded when a small explosive device tore through his car in the Tadamon neighborhood, a Syrian official said. No other damages were reported from the morning explosion, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give statements.
A military security brigadier, Adel Mustafa, also was killed by soldiers who had defected and refused his orders to shoot at civilians in the Bab Qibli area of Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists. The officer had previously overseen many killing and arrest operations, according to the LCC.
In Zabadani, activist Fares Mohammad said Syrian forces withdrew Wednesday night to two military barracks on the outskirts.
"There is a cautious calm, but fear of another major assault being prepared against Zabadani," he told The Associated Press by telephone from the resort town, located alongside the Lebanese border 17 miles (27 kilometers) west of Damascus.
The Syrian opposition has on several occasions throughout the uprising gained control of a town or city, but ultimately forces loyal to Assad retook them. It is unusual however for the army to take so long to recapture a town so close to the capital.
Mohammed said the siege had eased, although heating oil has not been allowed into the town, where it snowed earlier this week. Military checkpoints surrounding the Zabadani were still in place, he said, while about 100 armed defectors were "protecting" it.
Residents said government mortars had shelled the town on Wednesday, but that too had stopped.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the pullout from Zabadani, saying only two armored personnel carriers were left behind at one of the checkpoints near the town.
Syrian officials issued no comment about the fighting in Zabadani.
Activists said at least 16 people were killed by security forces across Syria on Thursday, including four activists who were ambushed in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region.
Michael reported from Cairo. Additional reporting by Bradley Klapper in Washington.