BEIRUT: An advance preparation team to pave the way for peace monitors will arrive in Syria Thursday, the Arab League chief said Tuesday, as activist groups reported at least 100 people killed in a second day of raging battles between army defectors and loyalists in the villages around the northwestern Idlib province.
Tuesday’s clashes came on the heels of one of the bloodiest days in Syria Monday, when over 100 people, mainly defectors, were reported killed in the northern Zawiya Mountain area of Idlib, bordering Turkey.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Monday said that a defecting soldier in Idlib reported that between 60 and 70 defectors were gunned down while trying to flee their military positions between the villages of Kensafra and Kefer Quaid in the Zawiya Mountain area. It said another 40 people were killed across the country including three government soldiers fighting armed rebels.The Observatory reported Tuesday that the villages of Balyoon and Al-Mozah, also in Idlib, were bombarded by heavy machine-gun fire from the early morning.
“After clashes that broke out this morning with the regular army, 100 deserters were besieged then killed or wounded between the villages of Kafruwed and Al-Fatira” in the Idlib district of Zawiya Mountain, the Britain-based rights group told AFP.
“Dozens of civilians, including many activists, are also surrounded by the Syrian army in Kafruwed,” it said in a statement, quoting activists on the ground. It also reported 37 civilians killed in the northwestern province of Idlib, and another 12 in the central city of Homs.
Activists group the Local Coordination Committees said 68 people had been killed by security forces in Idlib Tuesday.
There were differing accounts of how the clashes started and, with independent media still largely banned from the country, details and death tolls are impossible to corroborate.
Director of the Avaaz Human Rights group Wissam Tariff told The Daily Star defectors came under fire when they attempted to ambush an army base and weapons storage facility in Zawiya Mountain.
He said an estimated 97 loyal troops had been killed, and up to 170 defectors, adding that it was difficult to know who was a defector and who was loyalist based on personal records. He cited a local hospital confirming that it had received 97 soldiers’ bodies Tuesday.
He said the army had responded by shelling villages around the area Tuesday.
Idlib and its environs have emerged as a key resistance area outside of central Homs with reports of defecting soldiers assembling there in large numbers.
“Idlib has really started to change in the last two weeks,” said Tariff, adding that he believed some towns had now been “completely liberated.”
“Our estimates are that there are now around 3,000 defectors in the area. In the last three to four weeks they have been attacking the army and military posts.”
The upscale in violence came as Syria signed an amended Arab League initiative try to end the crisis. That initiative allows independent monitors into Syria to oversee the removal of troops from civilian areas, the release of prisoners and the start of talks with opposition leaders.
In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters that an advance team would go to Syria Thursday, with 150 monitors due to arrive by the end of December.
“It’s a completely new mission ... and it depends on implementation in good faith,” he said. “In a week’s time, from the start of the operation, we will know [if Syria is complying],” he added.
The team would include security, legal and administrative observers, with human rights experts expected to follow, and be headed by assistant Secretary-General Samir Seif al-Yazal.
Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmad Bin Helli said Gen. Mohammad Ahmad Mustafa al-Dabi, former head of Sudanese military intelligence and state minister for security arrangements has been named to head the mission.
Dabi, who coordinated between the Sudanese government and the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping troops in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, is expected in Cairo soon to get his marching orders from Elaraby.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem has pledged his government’s full cooperation with the observer mission to stave off a threat of sweeping sanctions the league approved last month.
“Signing the protocol is the start of cooperation with the Arab League and we will welcome the observers’ mission from the Arab League,” Moallem said Monday, saying Russia, its longtime ally and arms supplier, had urged it to sign the protocol.
Iran, Syria’s key backer, said the agreement to let in observers from the Arab League was “acceptable,” if not ideal.
But the promise has been met with skepticism.
Rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council urged Syria Tuesday to immediately halt its “killing machine” as well as end the bloodshed and “lift all signs of armed conflict.”
The opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, has accused Damascus of accepting the plan as a mere “ploy” to head off a threat by the pan-Arab bloc to go to the U.N. Security Council.
“It’s all about implementation,” said Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, while the United States has also expressed doubt that Syria was genuine in its promise.
“A signature on a piece of paper from a regime like this, that has broken promise after promise after promise, means relatively little to us,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
France meanwhile 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 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.
The Syrian government maintains that unrest is being driven by armed terrorist groups and Tuesday the official SANA news agency reported that the Syrian navy and air force conducted live-fire maneuvers to test their preparedness against “any aggression against the homeland.”
“The air force and air defenses conducted maneuvers with live ammunition ... with a view to testing the combat capabilities of the air forces and to test their readiness to respond to any aggression” against the country, SANA said.
The agency added that naval forces had carried out similar exercises.
Syria also introduced a new law imposing the death penalty on anyone arming “terrorists,” state media reported. SANA said that according to the new law, anyone found guilty of weapons smuggling would be sentenced to anything from 15 years to life imprisonment. Those smuggling and distributing weapons with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts would receive a death sentence.
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. – With agencies