Dozens killed in Syria as Arab peace team due

BEIRUT,  (Reuters) – Nearly 50 people were  killed in Syria yesterday, 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  al-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 Deraa 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 Elaraby told Reuters in  Cairo that an advance team would go to Syria tomorrow, 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),” Elaraby 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 al-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 spokesman 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 yesterday 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 yesterday, 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.

U.N. TOLL

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.

The United States and European Union have already imposed  sanctions on Syria, which combined with the unrest itself have  pushed the economy into a sharp fall. The Syrian pound fell  nearly 2 percent yesterday to over 55 pounds per dollar, 17  percent down from the official rate before the crisis erupted. In response to the economic downturn, Al-Baath newspaper  said Prime Minister Adel Safar had instructed ministries to  slash their expenditures by 25 percent. The cuts affected  spending on items including fuel, stationery and hospitality

Elaraby 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 U.N. Security  Council to adopt its peace plan for Syria, broadening the  chances of international action.

Damascus said Russia, its longtime ally and arms supplier,  had urged it to sign the protocol on Arab monitors.

As international pressure mounted, the U.N. General Assembly  voted to condemn Syria’s use of force to quell protests, with  Russia and China abstaining instead of voting against.

Arab rulers want to halt a slide towards a possible civil  war in Syria that could shake a region already riven by rivalry  between non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran and Sunni Arab heavyweights  such as Saudi Arabia.

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