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The Syrian government published a new law this week that mandates the death penalty for anyone distributing weapons for the purpose of committing terrorist acts, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

Army deserters have taken shelter in Homs and Jabal Zawiyeh, where pro-Assad forces have used air power to strike targets.

However, residents say they have not supplied arms to the men, who are carrying their own light weapons and are no match for the pro-Assad army.

The defectors have formed a Free Syria Army, but so far it has largely been involved in protecting unarmed protesters from the government crackdown.

Residents are facing an acute shortage of fuel, heating oil and medical supplies critical during the bitter winter months.

“The regime is applying collective punishment,” said Mr. Azzawi.

The White House said in a statement that it is deeply disturbed by the reports of violence and added that the Assad regime “does not deserve to rule Syria.”

It called for a full withdrawal of security forces, the release of political prisoners, and unfettered access by monitors and international media to all parts of Syria.

In Cairo on Monday, Syria signed the Arab League peace initiative allowing observers into the country. The plan calls on the Assad regime to halt its crackdown, start talks with the opposition, withdraw forces from city streets and allow access to human rights workers and journalists.

“The words of the Assad regime have no credibility when they continue to be followed by outrageous and deplorable actions,” the White House said.

In remarks directed at Russia and China, the White House urged Syria[‘]s “few remaining supporters in the international community” to warn the regime in Damascus of serious consequences if the Arab League peace plan is not fully implemented.