Arab League observers due in Syria


The Arab League forged ahead with plans to send teams of monitors into Syria today even as President Bashar Assad's regime intensified its crackdown in the week since agreeing to halt bloodshed.

At least 20 more deaths were reported today from intense shelling by government forces in the centre of the country, hours before the monitoring teams were to arrive.

Activists said at least 275 civilians had been killed by government forces in the past week and another 150 people died in clashes between army defectors and regime troops.

The crackdown, including what activists said was a "massacre" in one town where 110 people were mowed down in several hours last week, brought a new round of international condemnation of Syria.

Neighbouring Turkey said the violence flew in the face of the Arab League deal that Syria signed and raised doubts about the regime's true intentions.

The Arab League plan agreed by Assad 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.

The monitors are supposed to ensure compliance, but so far there is no sign that Assad is implementing any of the terms, much less letting up on the brutal crackdown.

Members of the opposition say the regime's agreement to the Arab League plan is a farce.

"I very much doubt the Syrian regime will allow the observers to do their work," said prominent opposition figure Waleed al-Bunni from Cairo. "I expect them to try and hinder their movements by claiming that some areas are not safe, intimidating them or sending them to places other than the ones they should go to."

Syria's top opposition leader, doubtful that the Arab League alone can budge Assad, yesterday called for the League to bring the UN Security Council into the effort. The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March in the political violence.

The opposition has warned that the government, which has been besieging the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs for days, was preparing a massive assault on the area. Activists said the forces shelled the area with mortars and sprayed heavy machine gun fire in the most intense assault since the siege began Friday.

The Baba Amr district has been a centre for anti-government protests and army defections and has seen repeated crackdowns by the Syrian regime in recent months. The Syrian conflict is becoming increasingly militarised with growing clashes between army defectors and troops.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, described the attacks in Homs as a kind of "hysteria" as government forces desperately try to get the situation there under control ahead of the monitors' arrival.

"The observers are sitting in their hotel in Damascus while people are dying in Homs," he said.

The Observatory called on the monitors "to head immediately to Baba Amr to be witnesses to the crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated by the Syrian regime".