Arab League monitors to leave for Syria Monday as more deaths reported in crackdown


The first batch of Arab League monitors will head to Syria next week to assess whether Damascus is abiding by an Arab peace plan to end a nine-month crackdown on protesters, Egypt’s state news agency reported on Friday.

“The mission of Arab League monitors will leave for Syria this Monday under the leadership of (Sudanese general) Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi,” Arab League deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Helli was quoted by Egypt’s Middle East news agency as saying. The mission would comprise more than 50 people, he said.

As many as 28 people were killed as Syrian security forces continued with its crackdown against protesters and dissents in the country, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.

The announcement followed a meeting between Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby and the head of the monitoring team to discuss the details of the mission, the agency said. Further discussions would be completed on Saturday, it said.

Arab League officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Al-Araby said he had been in constant contact with a small advance team of monitors already in Syria and had discussed meetings they had had with Syrian officials, the agency said.

He said Iraq had provided 10 four-wheel drive vehicles for the mission.

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday he said the Arab League was pushing for a total of 150 monitors to go to Syria to witness what was happening on the ground.

Suicide bombings

Washington earlier Friday said that the suicide bombings which killed 44 people in Damascus must not hamper the Arab League monitoring mission in the country.

“There is no justification for terrorism of any kind and we condemn these acts wherever they occur,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

“It is crucial that today’s attack not impede the critical work of the Arab League monitoring mission to document and deter human rights abuses with the goal of protecting civilians,” State Toner said, according to AFP. “We hope that this mission will proceed unfettered in an atmosphere of non-violence.”

Friday’s bombings were the first reported large-scale suicide attacks in the nine-month-old uprising against Assad, which has thus far largely been marked by the brutal repression of street protests.

They came one day after the arrival of Arab League peace monitors.

Syria agreed to an Arab League protocol to allow about 500 observers into the country. The Dec. 19 signing came as the Arab League prepared to ask the United Nations to address a crisis that the U.N. estimates has left more than 5,000 people dead.

France, meanwhile, said it did not know who was behind two the deadly suicide bombings in Syria, but accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of trying to hide its own brutal tactics from foreign observers.

Syria has blamed the twin bombings on al-Qaeda extremists, but some observers suspect Damascus itself might be trying to manipulate public opinion just as an Arab League monitoring mission gets under way.

“We still don’t have any details on the origin of these attacks,” French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, when asked whether Paris shares suspicions that Assad’s regime might have staged the bombings.

Masking the reality

Valero said, however, that France was more generally concerned that Syria had for several days been carrying out actions “to mask the reality of the repression, notably by transferring political prisoners to secret jails.

“Bashar al-Assad is wrong if he thinks he can once again trick the international community by play acting, lies and procrastination,” he said, according to AFP.

The Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria on Nov. 27, increasing economic and political pressure on Assad. Efforts by the U.S. and the European Union, which have also imposed sanctions, to get a condemnation of his crackdown at the U.N. Security Council have been blocked by Russia and China.

The monitors are supposed to verify Syria’s implementation of an Arab League peace plan it agreed six weeks ago, which stipulates a withdrawal of tanks and troops from the streets of protest-hit cities and towns and their surroundings, release of prisoners and reform-minded dialogue with the opposition.

Arab League sources have said the advance team, led by top League official Samir Seif al-Yazal, comprises a dozen people, including financial, administrative and legal experts.

The league has been given assurances that its observers will be able to travel freely, communicating with whomever they want without approval from Syrian authorities, Al Arabiya reported.

The Syrian National Council, an opposition alliance seeking to topple Assad’s government, has called for a Security Council meeting to address alleged massacres and genocide.

State forces have killed 250 people in the past 48 hours in the regions of Idlib, Homs and al-Zawiyah, the council said on Thursday.

Reports of the latest killings couldn’t be verified because the Syrian government restricts foreign media access in the country and places curbs on local journalists.

Major assaults

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s forces carried out major assaults in the northern and southern provinces this week, apparently trying to quell serious opposition to strengthen his hand before the monitors settle in.

Syrian troops surrounded and killed 111 people on Tuesday in the northern province of Idlib, in the deadliest single assault since the uprising erupted, according to the Observatory, according to Reuters.

France called Tuesday’s killings in Idlib an “unprecedented massacre.” The United States said Syrian authorities had “flagrantly violated their commitment to end violence” while Assad’s former ally Turkey condemned Syria’s policy of “oppression which has turned the country into a bloodbath.”

Damascus says more than 1,000 prisoners have been freed since the Arab plan was agreed and the army has pulled out of cities. Anti-Assad activists deny any such pullout has occurred.

The government has promised a parliamentary election early next year as well as constitutional reform that might loosen the Baath Party’s 48-year grip on power.

Syrian pro-democracy activists are deeply skeptical about Assad’s commitment to the plan. If implemented, it could embolden demonstrators demanding an end to his 11-year rule, which followed three decades of domination by his father.

The British-based Avaaz rights group said on Thursday it had evidence of more than 6,237 deaths of civilians and security forces in the conflict, 617 of them under torture. At least 400 of the dead were children, it added.