December 22, 2011 5:50 pm

Monitors arrive in Syria to assess violence

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A surge in violence throughout Syria appeared to ease on Thursday as members of an Arab monitoring team headed for the country as part of a plan to bring an end to the months-long confrontation between the regime and a pro-democracy movement dedicated to toppling it.

Activists accused Syrian security forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, president, of killing 23 people on Thursday. But the toll was down sharply from the more than 200 thought to have died in the 48 hours before.

Syria has been under increasing international pressure to halt a crackdown on a nationwide uprising inspired by Arab revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The violence has alarmed international and regional leaders under mounting public and diplomatic pressure to act. The foreign ministry of Japan expanded a freeze on Syrian assets on Thursday to include the country’s Real Estate Bank, three individuals and five organisations close to Mr Assad, the Kyodo news agency reported.

According to a report to be released on Friday by Avaaz, the New York-based advocacy group, more than 6,200 people have been killed and 69,000 imprisoned in the nine months of turmoil. The UN has put the death toll at more than 5,000.

The seven-member Arab League delegation, headed by Samir Seif al-Yazal, assistant secretary-general, arrived on Thursday afternoon as an advance team for a larger group of monitors to arrive on Saturday, according to a report by pan-Arab Al Jazeera.

The monitors are part of an Arab League peace plan that Syria reluctantly agreed to on Monday, in the face of a referral to the UN Security Council.

Under the terms of the agreement, Syria must halt military operations against its people, open talks with opposition groups, release political prisoners and allow foreign journalists into the country. Instead, this week Syria appeared to step up violence against its opponents, especially in the mountainous north-west region where scattered groups of armed rebels are said to be operating.

Activists said they were having difficulty getting information from Idlib province, where hundreds have allegedly been killed in clashes this week.

“The army is strengthening its presence around the villages and roads and it’s been more difficult for them to get information to us,” Mohammad al-Saleh, an activist across the border in Turkey told the Financial Times. “There are continuous clashes and more martyrs today, but fewer than in the last days – today is more quiet.”

Activists said the rebel Syrian Free Army, comprised of defected soldiers, had withdrawn from the area as large contingents of government forces swarmed into half of the 40 or so villages in the Zawiya mountain district, the epicenter of the latest clashes.

“We have heard that around 12 were killed today, but the situation is not yet clear,” said Mohammad Fizo, a Syrian activist in Turkey. “The military is attacking civilian areas with heavy weapons. There are many more army forces than before.”

Syria’s official news agency said security forces “stormed dens of armed terrorist groups”, killed and wounded an unspecified number of men, arrested tens, seized weapons and confiscated communications gear in northwestern Idlib province, Homs and the southern city of Daraa, the wellspring of the uprising.

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