Syria said on Thursday more than 2,000 members of its army and security forces had been killed in armed attacks since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March.
It gave the figure in a letter to the United Nations which was published by the state news agency SANA as an advance team from the Arab League arrived in Syria on Thursday to prepare for the deployment of monitors who will assess whether Damascus is implementing a plan to end a nine-month crackdown on protests, a member of the team told Reuters.
“We arrived in Damascus safely,” Waguih Hanafy, a senior aide to Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby, said by telephone from the Syrian capital. Al-Araby has said the monitors could be sent before the end of December.
There was no let-up on Thursday with human rights activists reporting at least 40 more people killed and clashes between defectors and regular troops in flash points Homs and Idlib, Al Arabiya reported.
Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi also headed to the League headquarters in Cairo to be briefed on his role in leading the 150-strong observer team that could be sent to Syria before the end of December, provided preparations go smoothly.
Syria agreed in November to an Arab plan demanding an end to fighting, the withdrawal of troops from residential areas, the release of prisoners and the start of a dialogue with the opposition. It balked for six weeks over letting in monitors.
In that time, the League imposed economic sanctions and threatened to escalate the matter to the U.N. Security Council, while the death toll has soared as Syria has turned its troops and tanks against demonstrators.
It finally signed a protocol on monitors on Monday.
Dabi, who coordinated between Sudan’s government and international peacekeepers there, told reporters at Cairo airport he would meet League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby to follow up on arrangements for the observer mission.
He said observers would work “with complete transparency to observe the situation in Syria,” adding it would hold continuous meetings in the field with all factions, including the Syrian army, opposition, security forces and humanitarian groups.
Al-Araby told Reuters on Tuesday that 150-strong observers would demand free access to hospitals, prisons and other sites across the country.
He also said the team would issue daily reports that would be shown to but not vetted by the Syrian authorities. Al-Araby said the monitors could be in Syria before the end of December.
The advance team making preparations for the mission is led by top League official Samir Seif al-Yazal and comprises 11 people, including financial, administrative and legal experts, officials said, according to Reuters.
“During our visit to Syria, we will work on some necessary arrangements to receive the mission on the ground, such as accommodation, transport, communications and security,” Yazal said shortly before he flew out of Cairo.
Al-Araby said monitors would need no more than a week from arrival to see whether Syria was abiding by the peace plan. He said 10 four-wheel drive vehicles were being sent from Iraq to Syria to help out the observers.
Opposition leaders have charged that Syria’s agreement to the observer mission on Monday was a mere “ploy” to head off a threat by the Arab League to go the U.N. Security Council.
The opposition Syrian National Council charged on Wednesday that regime forces had killed 250 people in 48 hours in the run-up to the advance team’s arrival, according to AFP.
Pro-democracy activists called on Facebook for nationwide protests on Friday against the observer mission, with the slogan “Protocol of death, a license to kill.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said it was “honest and important” that the text of the protocol referred to violence on all sides as well as armed groups, “because it takes into account armed gangs.”
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the observers to vindicate Damascus’ claims that the unrest has been caused by “armed terrorist groups,” not peaceful protesters as maintained by Western governments and human rights watchdogs.
The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown since mid-March.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said the Arab League needs to show that its observers are “independent and able to work effectively” to dispel “well-founded fears of yet another Syrian stalling tactic.”
Muallem has said the observers will be able to access so-called “hot zones” but not sensitive military sites. Human Rights Watch called on Damascus to grant full access.