Syria pursues crackdown as Arab League team arrives
Syria pressed ahead with an offensive in a stronghold of army deserters on Thursday, as an advance Arab League team tasked with monitoring Damascus' implementation of a peace plan to end the crisis arrived in the country, dpa reported.
Activists said some 29 people were killed in the flashpoint central city of Homs and the northern city of Idlib, where the Syrian army has killed more than 250 people over the last two days in an operation against army deserters based there.
Dozens of Arab observers are due to arrive in Syria later this month to monitor President Bashar al-Assad's compliance with a plan which calls for soldiers to retreat from residential areas, talks to begin with the opposition and the release of political prisoners.
The 12-member Arab League advance team comprises technical, financial, administrative and legal experts who will ensure that future monitors will have freedom of movement and access in Syria.
"It is in our interests to see this mission succeed, because its task is to examine the situation on the ground, and it will realize that things are not black or white - they are much more complex," said Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi.
Syria accepted the plan on Monday after weeks of hesitation. Damascus says it is fighting armed terrorists who have killed more than 1,000 police and soldiers during 10 months of violence.
France described the intensifying violence as an "unprecedented massacre." The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in al-Assad's crackdown on pro-democracy protests that started in mid-March.
The Syrian opposition doubts al-Assad will comply with the Arab League plan. The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, called on the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on the Syrian crisis and to act to stop the bloodshed.
On Wednesday the council called for the establishment of "secure zones for civilians" in Syria and humanitarian corridors to provide flashpoint cities with food and medicine.
It also urged "an immediate intervention to stop the massacres, which have reached the point of extermination," and said Syrian security forces had beheaded a Muslim sheikh in the village of Kfar Awbad near Idlib and hung his head outside a mosque.
Reports from Syria are difficult to verify independently because foreign journalists are barred from reporting freely.
Syrian authorities on Thursday released prominent opposition member Abdul-Aziz al-Khair, a day after he was arrested at Damascus Airport while he tried to board a plane to Cairo, activists said.