Syria's army suspended days of punishing attacks on the restive city of Homs and began withdrawing its tanks Tuesday just as Arab League monitors visited the area, activists and officials said.
Activists posted video clips on YouTube which appeared to show crowds numbering in the tens of thousands pouring into the streets shortly after the pullback, shouting defiantly that they will not be cowed by the crackdown.
"There are at least 70,000 protesters," Rami Abdelrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters. "They are marching towards the city center and the security forces are trying to stop them. They are firing teargas."
In another amateur video posted online, Syrians shouted "We want international protection" as the team of observers passed through bloodied and rubble-strewn streets.
'We are unarmed people'
Other footage appeared to show residents of Homs' tense Baba Amr district speaking to the Arab monitors.
"We are unarmed people who are dying," one resident shouts. Seconds later, shooting is heard from a distance as someone else screams: "We are being slaughtered here."
Syria has banned foreign journalists, making it impossible to independently verify the source or date of these video clips.
About 60 Arab League monitors — the first Syria's regime has allowed in during its nine-month crackdown on an anti-government uprising — began work Tuesday. They are there to ensure compliance with the League's plan to halt violence against mostly unarmed, peaceful protesters and the pullback in Homs was the first tangible sign President Bashar Assad was implementing any of the terms.
The head of mission said the first visit was "very good."
"I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to Homs," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi said. "The team is staying in Homs. Today was very good and all sides were responsive."
Activist reports just before the monitors arrived said up to a dozen tanks were seen leaving Baba Amr but others were being hidden to fashion a false impression of relative normality in the city while observers were around.
"My house is on the eastern entrance of Baba Amr. I saw at least six tanks leave the neighborhood at around 8 in the morning (0600 GMT)," Mohamed Saleh told Reuters by telephone. "I do not know if more remain in the area."
Al Jazeera television showed an estimated 20,000 Syrians in a square in Khalidiya, one of four districts where there has been bloodshed as rebels fight security forces using tanks.
They were whistling and shouting and waving flags, playing music over loudspeakers and clapping. Women were advised to leave because of the risk of bloodshed. But a speaker urged the men to "come down, brothers."
The protesters shouted "We have no one but God" and "Down with the regime." An activist named Tamir told Reuters they planned to hold a sit-in in the square.
"We tried to start a march down to the main market but the organizers told us to stop, it's too dangerous. No one dares go down to the main streets. So we will stay in Khalidiya and we will stay here in the square and we will not leave from here."
After signing on to the plan early last week, Assad's regime had only intensified the violence, rather than easing up, and it was condemned internationally for flouting the agreement. Government troops killed hundreds in just the past week. On Monday, security forces killed at least 42 people, most of them in Homs.
Opposition activist Mohammed Saleh said the heavy bombardment of Homs stopped Tuesday morning and tanks were seen pulling out of the streets. Another Homs-based activist said he saw armored vehicles leaving early Tuesday on a highway leading to the city of Palmyra to the east. He asked that his name not be made public for fear of retribution.
Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has a population of 800,000 and is at the epicenter of the revolt against Assad, located about 100 miles north of the capital, Damascus. Many Syrians refer to Homs as the "capital of the revolution."
Elsewhere, several men from an "armed terrorist group" trying to cross from the Turkish border into Syria were shot dead, the state news agency said.
"Special forces were able to kill and wound several gunmen and seized some weapons, ammunitions, army uniforms, communication tools and fake identity cards," SANA said, but it did not give a specific casualty count.
SANA also reported that a "terrorist group" had attacked a gas pipeline near Homs but there were no further details immediately available.
Syria's top opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun called Sunday for the League to bring the U.N. Security Council into the effort. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March in the political violence.
In Cairo, an official at the Arab League's operations room said the Sudanese head of the mission to Syria, Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, was leading the team of at least 12 observers in Homs Tuesday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, gave no further details.
Parts of Homs are defended by the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the regular armed forces, who say they have tried to protect civilians.
The Arab League plan agreed to by Assad last week requires the government to remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. Before Tuesday's redeployment of at least some tanks, there had been no sign that Assad was implementing any of the terms, much less letting up on his brutal crackdown.
Assad's opponents fear that the monitors — who arrived in the country on Monday after weeks of negotiations with Arab states — will be used as a cloak of respectability for a government that will hide the extent of violence.