BEIRUT, Lebanon - The head of an Arab League observer mission came under strong criticism Wednesday for describing conditions in the strife-torn Syrian city of Homs as "nothing frightening" despite the release of amateur footage that seemed to show monitors witnessing gunfire and meeting with victims of a violent crackdown against dissent.
The observer mission has been the subject of controversy since Syria agreed early last week to admit monitors to determine whether the government is complying with a league-negotiated plan to end months of bloodshed.
International human-rights groups had questioned the selection of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, a former Sudanese military intelligence chief, to lead the mission, saying Sudan's defiance of an international war-crimes tribunal made him unlikely to take a tough stance against abuses committed by a fellow Arab state.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity committed in Sudan's Western Darfur region.
Opposition activists said Dabi's comments confirmed their fears that the mission would be a waste of time and only provide cover for more bloodshed.
"These guys are all from the same system," said Rami Nakhle, a member of Syria's most prominent opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council. "Do we really need observers to confirm that crimes against humanity are being committed in Syria?"
League officials have said Dabi has the military and diplomatic background required for the mission and have asked for more time to show what can be accomplished.
But the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups say the mission is too small to monitor trouble spots across a country of about 22 million people.
The league had wanted to send 500 observers to Syria to monitor the regional initiative, which calls for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and other residential areas, the release of political prisoners, and dialogue with the opposition. So far only 60 observers have traveled to the country, with a promise of about 90 more to come.
As the observers began their mission Tuesday in Homs, a city at the epicenter of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's government, residents contended that the armed forces were hiding tanks in school and government compounds. Security forces later fired tear gas and live rounds at tens of thousands of demonstrators who tried to rally in the city's main square, activists said.
"Some places looked a bit of a mess, but there was nothing frightening," Dabi was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency Wednesday.
"The situation seemed reassuring so far," he said. "Yesterday was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not see tanks, but we did see some armored vehicles. But remember, this was only the first day and it will need investigation."
The comments provoked outrage among opposition supporters in Homs - where residents reportedly endured days of punishing shelling before the monitors arrived - and on social-media sites. "They clearly have no idea what is happening on the ground," said an activist who goes by the name of Abu Rami.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces had killed more than 500 people since the government signed a protocol for the observer mission Dec. 19.