Observers from the Arab League receive a hero's welcome in the Syrian… (Thomas Evans, CNN )
Reporting from Zabadani, Syria — When observers from the Arab League drove into this mountain town in southwestern Syria, a hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad, they received a hero's welcome.
Residents mobbed the observers' car, clamored to tell of their plight, and carried one of them away on their shoulders in celebration.
But just hours later, the five league representatives sped away under a hail of bullets. It was impossible to determine who was doing the shooting.
The episode Sunday was a rare, unsettling glimpse into the spiraling conflict that is threatening to plunge Syria into civil war and the challenges faced by about 160 monitors who are trying to verify wildly divergent versions of events under sometimes dangerous conditions.
Opposition activists and even some monitors have already declared the monthlong mission a failure, saying it was not given the time, the resources or the independence to determine whether the government is fulfilling its pledge to end a military crackdown that the United Nations says has claimed more than 5,000 lives since March. The government disputes the figures and says most of the casualties have been members of the security forces, who they charge are being targeted by foreign-backed terrorists.
In better times, Zabadani, a scenic town near the border with Lebanon, was famous for its cherry, apricot and apple orchards, and for the gracious summer homes built by members of the Syrian elite and wealthy visitors from the Persian Gulf.
Residents said that on Friday security forces surrounded the town and began pummeling them with tank rounds and gunfire.
"Kids are dying here and we can't take them to the hospital," one man said Sunday. "We've been three days without electricity or water."
The five monitors, including representatives from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, were dispatched to investigate what was happening.
Syrian officials, who are responsible for the mission's security, informed the team that explosive devices had been found on the road to Zabadani and urged them not to go. If the observers insisted, they said, their security escort could not accompany them into the town, which residents acknowledge is defended by military defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
It was not the first time they were presented with such a choice, the observers said. In some cases, they decided against a visit. This time they said they would see how far they could get on their own.
"With these things, we never know if it's a real threat or they are just trying to keep us away," one said. Like others interviewed, he asked not to be identified because the league has instructed the monitors not to speak to journalists.
They set off from Damascus in a speeding convoy full of armed security force members. Less than half an hour from the bustling streets of the capital, they entered an area that looked and felt like a front line in a war.
The road emptied of traffic and checkpoints dotted the way, manned by grim-looking officers in helmets and flak jackets with the occasional armored vehicle. About 15 miles outside Zabadani, the security escort peeled off. A car carrying the observers pressed on, stopping every few miles to ask residents and security force members what lay ahead.
At a checkpoint about 10 miles from Zabadani, an anti-riot police officer led the observers up a muddy path to a stable yard, to show them what he said were several recovered roadside bombs. They photographed what appeared to be rusty fuel canisters with wires attached.
"Where are the detonators?" an observer asked. The officer said he was not an engineer, but thought the canisters contained explosives.
As they got closer, the monitors came across families fleeing on foot and in cars with little or no luggage. Asked whether there was trouble ahead, a woman in a long black coat snapped back, "If there weren't trouble, we wouldn't be escaping."
"We are walking now in the street and we don't know where we are going," said the woman, who asked to be identified only as Aisha, for fear of retribution.
The town appeared eerily deserted until the observers turned down a narrow street dubbed "Free Syria" in bold black graffiti on a wall. Young men raced into the road to clear away an improvised checkpoint and lead the vehicles to a small square where hundreds of people were waiting for them. The crowd erupted in cheers and chants.
Frantic men and women surrounded the vehicles, eager to tell their stories. Some carried photographs of the dead.
"My uncle was released from prison and shot the same day," said a 12-year-old boy, who elbowed his way to the front of the crowd.
A 60-year-old man lifted his shirt to show what appeared to be burn marks on his stomach. "They arrested me and my son and four of my cousins," he said. "This is from the electric shocks."