Fierce fighting in northern Syria before Arab mission
Dec 21, 2011 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Dec 21, 2011 12:00 am
Fierce fighting has continued in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, with activists saying nearly 50 people were killed there and elsewhere on Tuesday, shortly before officials arrive to prepare for an Arab League effort to end nine months of 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 machinegunned 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 on Thursday, 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 on Tuesday 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 on Tuesday, 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.
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 imposed sanctions on Syria, which combined with the unrest itself have pushed the economy into a sharp decline. The Syrian pound fell nearly 2 percent on Tuesday to more than 55 pounds per dollar, 17 percent down from the official rate before the crisis erupted.
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.