In a new development in Syria's uprising, the Assad regime has introduced a law recommending the death penalty for anyone found arming "terrorists". State-run television announced the edict as human rights agencies said more than 100 people, mostly defecting soldiers, were killed on Monday in the bloodiest day so far in nine months of protest.
President Bashar al-Assad, facing international condemnation for his brutal crackdown on opposition to his rule, has accused demonstrators of being foreign-backed "armed terrorists", and not the peaceful protesters that the West and human rights organisations say they are.
The uprising has become increasingly violent in recent months as thousands of army defectors have joined the Free Syrian Army, successfully mounting attacks on regime targets, tipping the country closer to full-blown civil war.
Besides imposing the death penalty on "terrorists" and those who supply weapons, the law says those involved in arms smuggling "for profit or to carry out acts of terrorism" will face life imprisonment and hard labour.
The tougher measures come just hours after Damascus ended weeks of prevarication and agreed to allow international observers to oversee implementation of an Arab League peace plan aimed at halting the violence that has killed more than 5,000 people since March, according to United Nations estimates.
On Monday, security forces gunned down army deserters in the north-western province of Idlib, near the Turkish border, killing more than 60 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said that more than 40 civilians had been killed elsewhere in the country during house raids, arrests and clashes with the Syrian army.
There were also reports of deadly clashes in the same area yesterday, the Syrian Observatory reporting that security forces killed 23 civilians in Idlib and another 10 across the country. It also said that 14 security personnel were killed in the southern Daraa province The reported death toll from another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, was much lower. It said two people had been killed in Idlib, and a further nine across the country.
An advance group of Arab League observers is to arrive tomorrow, the League said, with the remainder of a 150-strong team arriving by the end of the month.
Walid Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, said they would be free to move around the country "under the protection" of the state, but would not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites. He suggested that their presence would vindicate the regime's claims that armed terrorists are operating freely, but activists said it would prove the uprising was peaceful. The observers will initially be in the country for one month, but that could be extended with mutual agreement, Mr Moallem said.
Syria reluctantly agreed to allow in foreign observers after pressure from Russia, its close ally, and the Arab League, which threatened at the weekend to refer Damascus to the UN Security Council, a serious diplomatic escalation that could have led to further sanctions against the already damaged economy.
The plan – which Syria agreed early in November but never implemented, with atrocities being recorded on a daily basis – demands the regime stop the bloodshed, withdraw its troops from residential areas, release political prisoners and start talks with the opposition.
The Gulf Co-operation Council yesterday called on Damascus to halt the "killing machine" and implement all aspects of the peace plan immediately. Critics of the regime regard the regime's reluctant signing of a protocol on observers as a tactic to buy time and avert a showdown at the UN.