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Arab League team arrives in Syria as death reports rise

An Arab League monitoring advance team arrives safely in Syria as a human rights group reports 6,200 people have died in a crackdown on government foes.
Image: Demonstrators against Syria's President al-Assad hold a poster with a picture representing Arab League Secretary General Elaraby in Kafranbel near Adlb
Demonstrators against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad hold a poster with a picture representing Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby in Kafranbel near Adlb recently.Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

An advance team arranging for Arab League monitors arrived safely in Syria on Thursday as a human rights group reported that 6,200 people, including hundreds of children, have died in President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on an anti-government revolt.

Syria, which says it is fighting foreign-backed "terrorists," announced Thursday that more than 2,000 of its security forces had been killed in the unrest.

The Arab League monitors will assess whether Damascus is acting to end the crackdown, a League official said.

"We arrived in Damascus safely," Waguih Hanafy, a senior aide to Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, said by telephone from the Syrian capital.

In Cairo, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi arrived for talks at League headquarters to be briefed on his role in leading the 150-strong observer team, which could be sent to Syria before the end of December, provided preparations go smoothly.

Syria agreed in November to an Arab plan demanding an end to fighting, the withdrawal of troops from residential areas, the release of prisoners and the start of a dialogue with the opposition. It balked for six weeks over letting in monitors.

In that time, the League imposed economic sanctions and threatened to escalate the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Syria signed a protocol on monitors Monday.

Plan for monitors
Dabi, who coordinated between Sudan's government and international peacekeepers there, told reporters at Cairo's airport that he would meet League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby to follow up on arrangements for the observer mission.

He said observers would work "with complete transparency to observe the situation in Syria," adding they would hold continuous meetings in the field with all factions, including the Syrian army, opposition, security forces and humanitarian groups.

Elaraby told Reuters on Tuesday that the 150-strong observer deployment would demand free access to hospitals, prisons and other sites across the country.

Elaraby said monitors would need no more than a week from arrival to see whether Syria was abiding by the peace plan. He said 10 four-wheel drive vehicles were being sent from Iraq to Syria to help out the observers.

Death toll climbs
The British-based Avaaz rights group said it had collected evidence of more than 6,237 deaths of civilians and security forces, 617 of them under torture. At least 400 of the dead were children, the group said.

The figures were about 1,000 higher that the latest U.N. estimates, which have also been climbing sharply in recent months.

"No one can now turn a blind eye to the horror-show in Syria. ... One in every 300 Syrians has either been killed or imprisoned," Avaaz executive director Ricken Patel said in a statement.

"The world faces a choice: It stands by while brutal civil war rips through the country or it steps up the pressure to force Assad out," he said.

The death toll is rising sharply as the mainly peaceful protest movement against the Assad family's 41-year rule becomes overshadowed by clashes with armed rebel groups, who call themselves the Free Syrian Army.

Avaaz estimated that 917 in its count died in those clashes, with the casualties roughly divided between the armed rebels and Syrian security personnel.

This has been one of the bloodiest weeks of the nine-month uprising. On Tuesday, the army's efforts to quash a revolt near the Turkish border killed more than 111 civilians and activists, another activist group said.