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Syria signs initiative to let in Arab observers

Pressure over crackdown spurs move

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BEIRUT — Syria signed an Arab League initiative Monday that will allow Arab observers into the country, Syria's foreign minister said, as part of an effort to end the nation's increasingly bloody nine-month-old crisis.

Up to now, Damascus balked at signing the deal. The regime's final acceptance of it was a response to mounting international pressure to end a bloody crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people and shows signs of descending into civil war.

Syria also appears to prefer to give Arab nations a chance to end a crisis instead of inviting wider international involvement.

"The signing of the protocol is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the Arab League observers," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters in Damascus.

He said the observers will have a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month if both sides agree. The observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," he said, but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.

Last month, Syria agreed to an Arab League plan to end the crisis. It called for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country, along with Arab League observers.

Despite its agreement, Syria then posed conditions that made implementation impossible.

A Syrian-based anti-regime activist who identifies himself as Abu Hamza said that now the Syrian regime "has signed something that they cannot implement." He said if the government withdraws the military from the streets, huge demonstrations will take place throughout the country.

"This will automatically lead to the downfall of the regime," Abu Hamza said, declining to give his real name for fear of retribution.

As the agreement was signed, security forces fatally shot at least three people in the southern province of Daraa and a demonstration in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan, where a child was wounded, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Three soldiers also were killed in a clash between troops and army defectors in the northern town of Maaret al-Numan, the observatory said.

Another activist group said Monday's death toll throughout Syria was 14.

The Arab League had given Syria until Wednesday to sign the agreement, warning that if Damascus did not, the League would likely turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end President Bashar Assad's crackdown.

The agreement was signed at the Arab League's Cairo headquarters after the 22-member bloc accepted amendments demanded by Syria, Mr. al-Moallem said. He did not say what they were.

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