Syrian security forces killed five people in the city of Homs on Thursday, activists and a resident said, a day after the government agreed to pull the military out of cities as part of an Arab League initiative to end unrest.

After seven months of street protests demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, and a nascent armed insurgency against his rule, Syria agreed on Wednesday to an Arab League plan to withdraw the army from cities, release political prisoners and hold talks with the opposition.

Assad's critics have dismissed his past offers of dialogue as insincere, saying the killing must stop before any meaningful talks can take place. The main opposition National Council has not commented on Syria's acceptance of the Arab League plan.

However, Paris-based Burhan Ghalioun, one of the council's leading figures, questioned whether it would be implemented.

The regime has accepted the Arab initiative out of fear of Arab isolation, its weakness and lack of options. But its acceptance does not mean it will respect its clauses, Ghalioun wrote on his Facebook page.

In Syria, residents and activists said there were no signs so far of any troop pullout, and security operations continued.

In Homs, tanks fired heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns in Bab Amro, a hotbed of protests and scene of operations by the military against insurgents hiding there.

Activists named two civilians killed in the bombardment. A rubbish truck driver district was among three others killed elsewhere in the city of one million, where army snipers were shooting from rooftops and soldiers fired from checkpoints.

MORNING SHELLING

We slept late because there were overnight street rallies celebrating the Arab initiative. This morning we woke up to rain and shelling, Samer, an activist in Bab Amro, said by phone.

Activists and residents reported army reinforcements at roadblocks in towns across the southern Hauran Plain, where troops fired in the air to disperse overnight protests.

Early in the morning, an armoured column fired machineguns in the air after entering al-Madiq castle near the Roman ruins of Apamea in the Ghab Plain, which has seen protests and has emerged as a refuge for army defectors, local activists said.

In the Damascus suburb of Harasta, at least 120 protesters were arrested overnight after celebrating the Arab League deal, a resident said.

Tough Syrian media restrictions have made it hard to verify events on the ground since an uprising against Assad began in March, inspired by other revolts in the Arab world.

The Arab plan calls for Syria to allow journalists, as well as Arab League monitors, into the country.

Assad has said security forces are battling Islamist militants and armed gangs who the authorities say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police. The United Nations says the crackdown on demonstrations has killed more than 3,000 people.

Western sanctions and growing criticism from Turkey and Arab neighbours have raised pressure on Syria to end the bloodshed.

We are happy to have reached this agreement and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately, said Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, which leads an Arab League committee behind the plan agreed in Cairo.

China, which along with Russia, has resisted imposing U.N sanctions on Syria, welcomed the Arab League plan.

We believe this marks an important step towards easing the situation in Syria and the early launching of an inclusive political process with broad participation from all parties in Syria, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

TOO EARLY TO TELL

Despite the latest violence, Sami Baroudi, a political analyst at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said it was too early to judge whether Syria would honour the agreement.

It will take at least a couple of days to see whether the intensity of violence is going down or up, or staying at the same level, Baroudi said. I wouldn't throw this initiative into the waste basket because nothing happened immediately.

We know from experience that in all civil wars or conflicts

you can't simply turn things off. If there is going to be a withdrawal of the army ... that cannot take place within hours. The whole process could take weeks, he said.

After the deal was announced in Cairo, the United States reiterated its call for the Syrian president to quit.

The Arab League has not suspended Syria's membership or backed international intervention, as it did against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi's, who was toppled by NATO-backed rebels.

There was no lull in violence as the Arab League ministers met on Wednesday. In one incident alone, Syrian activists said security forces had shot dead at least 11 Sunni Muslim villagers at a roadblock near Homs. A YouTube video purportedly showed several bodies, gagged and with their hands tied behind them.

Their killing follows reports by an activist in Homs that nine members of the president's minority Alawite sect had been dragged from a bus and killed by gunmen near Homs on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Alistair Lyon)