- Associated Press - Monday, December 26, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — The Arab League forged ahead with plans to send teams of monitors into Syria on Monday even though President Bashar Assad’s regime has only intensified its crackdown in the week since agreeing to halt bloodshed, killing several hundred civilians, according to activists.

At least 20 more deaths were reported on Monday from intense shelling by government forces in the center of the country, just hours before the monitoring teams were to arrive. Activists said at least 275 civilians have been killed by government forces in the past week, and another 150 people died in clashes between army defectors and regime troops — most of them defectors.

The stepped-up crackdown, including what activists said was a “massacre” in one town, where 110 people were mowed down in several hours last week, brought a new round of international condemnation of Syria. Neighboring Turkey said the violence flew in the face of the Arab League deal that Syria signed and raises doubts about the regime’s true intentions.

The Arab League plan agreed to by Mr. Assad requires the government to remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders, and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. The monitors are supposed to ensure compliance, but so far there is no sign that Mr. Assad is implementing any of the terms, much less letting up on the brutal crackdown.

Members of the opposition say the regime’s agreement to the Arab League plan is a farce.

“I very much doubt the Syrian regime will allow the observers to do their work,” said prominent opposition figure Waleed al-Bunni from Cairo. “I expect them to try and hinder their movements by claiming that some areas are not safe, intimidating them or sending them to places other than the ones they should go to.”

Syria‘s top opposition leader, doubtful that the Arab League alone can budge Mr. Assad, called Sunday for the league to bring the U.N. Security Council into the effort. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March in the political violence.

The opposition has warned that the government, which has been besieging the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs for days, was preparing a massive assault on the area. Activists said the forces shelled the area with mortars and sprayed heavy machine gun fire in the most intense assault since the siege began Friday.

The Baba Amr district has been a center for anti-government protests and army defections and has seen repeated crackdowns by the Syrian regime in recent months. The Syrian conflict is becoming increasingly militarized with growing clashes between army defectors and troops.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, described the attacks in Homs as a kind of “hysteria” as government forces desperately try to get the situation there under control ahead of the monitors’ arrival.

“The observers are sitting in their hotel in Damascus while people are dying in Homs,” he said.

The human-rights group called on the monitors “to head immediately to Baba Amr to be witnesses to the crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated by the Syrian regime.”

France expressed strong concerns about the continued deterioration of the situation in Homs and urged Syria‘s government to allow Arab League observers immediate access. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Syrian authorities should allow the observers access to the city “starting this afternoon.”

Although Syria showed no sign of altering its course, the Arab League said it was going ahead, and officials declined to comment on the continued crackdown. Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said 70 Arab monitors will arrive in the evening to join an advance team. Mr. Elaraby told reporters after meeting with the observers in Cairo that the mission will begin its work Tuesday. Up to 500 monitors are to be deployed eventually.

Anwar Malek, a member of the monitoring mission, insisted the monitors will have absolute freedom of movement in Syria, adding that the team will travel to flashpoint cities including Homs, Aleppo, Daraa, Idlib and Hama. He and other observers refused to disclose the exact travel itinerary, saying they preferred to maintain some secrecy to ensure the mission’s success.

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