Dozens killed in Syria as Arab peace team due
Arab League monitors to send advance team on Thursday
Reuters | Dec 21,2011 | 00:10
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Tuesday shows a missile being launched during military manoeuvres by the Syrian army in an undisclosed location in Syria. The Syrian navy and air force conducted live-fire manoeu
BEIRUT (Reuters) — Nearly 50 people were killed in Syria on Tuesday, an activist group said, two days before Arab League officials were due to arrive to prepare for a monitoring mission assessing Syrian compliance with a plan to stem the bloodshed.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 people were killed in fighting with President Bashar Assad's forces in the northern province of Idlib and 14 members of his security forces died in a rebel ambush in the south.
The overall death toll on Tuesday was at least 47, it said.
Idlib, on Syria's northern border with Turkey, has seen fierce fighting recently.
The observatory reported that security forces machine-gunned soldiers deserting their army base there on Monday, killing more than 60, and said rebels had damaged or destroyed 17 military vehicles since Sunday.
The state news agency SANA said security forces killed five "terrorists" in Daraa province on Monday night.
It also said Assad had decreed the death penalty for anyone caught distributing arms "with the aim of committing terrorist acts".
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi told Reuters in Cairo that an advance team would go to Syria on Thursday, with the 150 monitors due to arrive by end-December.
"It's a completely new mission... and it depends on implementation in good faith," he said.
Syria stalled for weeks before signing a protocol on Monday to accept the monitors who will check its compliance with an Arab plan for an end to violence, withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
"In a week's time, from the start of the operation, we will know [if Syria is complying]," Arabi said.
Syrian pro-democracy activists are deeply sceptical about Assad's commitment to the plan, which, if implemented, could embolden demonstrators demanding an end to his 11-year rule.
France said it hoped the monitors could carry out their mission quickly. But it also said Assad had a record of broken pledges and that Monday's violence showed there "isn't a moment to lose".
"For months we have seen Bashar Assad not keep to commitments he made to his people and he has increased his efforts to play for time in the face of the international community," foreign ministry spokesperson Bernard Valero said.
In recent months, peaceful protests have increasingly given way to armed confrontations often led by army deserters.
Some opposition leaders have called for foreign military intervention to protect civilians from Assad's forces.
In a show of military power, state television said on Tuesday the air force and navy both held live-fire exercises aimed at deterring any attack on Syria by land or sea.
The Syrian authorities have made it hard for anyone to know what is going on in their troubled country. They have barred most foreign journalists and imposed tight curbs on local ones.
The British-based Observatory said three more people had been killed in violence on Tuesday, two in the city of Homs and one in a village in Idlib province, the scene of a sustained military crackdown in the past three days.
SANA said a captain in the security forces had died of wounds inflicted by "terrorists" a week ago in the city of Hama.
The United Nations has said more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-Assad protests erupted in March, inspired by a wave of uprisings across the Arab world.
Several weeks ago Damascus said 1,100 members of the security forces had been killed by "armed terrorist gangs". An armed insurrection against Assad has gathered pace since then.
Syria agreed to the Arab peace plan in early November, but the violence raged on, prompting Arab states to announce financial sanctions and travel bans on Syrian officials.
Arabi said the Arab sanctions would remain until monitors begin reporting back. Arab ministers would decide the next step.
He said Gulf states would contribute about 60 of a 150-strong monitoring team led by a Sudanese general, which would expect freedom of movement and communication, including access to prisons and hospitals. Journalists would accompany the team.
The Arab League had threatened to ask the UN Security Council to adopt its peace plan for Syria, broadening the chances of international action.
Damascus said Russia, its long-time ally and arms supplier, had urged it to sign the protocol on Arab monitors.
As international pressure mounted, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Syria's use of force to quell protests, with Russia and China abstaining instead of voting against.
Iran, Syria's key backer, said the agreement to let in observers from the Arab League was "acceptable", if not ideal.
The US State Department voiced scepticism. "We are really less interested in a signed piece of paper than we are in actions to implement commitments made," a spokeswoman said.
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