Arab observers head to Syria; Turkey blasts Assad
BEIRUT - The Associated Press
Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally to show support for the army in Damascus,December 21, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency. REUTERS PhotoA team of Arab observers headed to Syria on Thursday as neighboring Turkey condemned President Bashar Assad for turning his country into a "bloodbath" after the regime killed more than 200 people this week alone, drawing international condemnation and dramatically raising the death toll in the nine-month uprising.
Activists said the Syrian government appeared to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before monitors from the Arab League arrive under a plan to resolve the country's crisis.
"They are trying to buy time, one hour after another, hoping to gain the upper hand on the ground," said an activist in the northern village of Kfar Owaid near the Turkish border, where more than 100 people were killed on Tuesday.
That attack was among the deadliest so far in Syria. Government troops surrounded residents and activists in a valley and unleashed a barrage of rockets, tank shells, bombs and gunfire in an hours-long assault that one activist described as an "organized massacre." Kfar Owaid is part of the rugged mountainous region of Jabal al-Zawiyah, which has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests. The activist said troops were now in full control of the region.
"Thousands of soldiers and special forces have deployed, there are tanks and checkpoints every few meters, snipers everywhere," the activist told The Associated Press by telephone Thursday, He said he was on the run and spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his own safety. "Is this in line with the Arab peace plan? Or is the Arab League also conspiring with the Syrian regime against us?" The Syrian government has not commented on the death toll in Kfar Oweid and other areas in the past few days, but state-run news agency SANA said Thursday that dozens of "terrorists" were killed or arrested in the north and in the southern Daraa province during raids and clashes.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March as Syria has sought to put down the uprising â€” part of the Arab Spring of protests that has toppled long-serving unpopular leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration accused the Syrian government of continuing to "mow down" its people and the French foreign ministry said everything must be done to stop this "murderous spiral." Turkey, once a close ally of Damascus, said in a statement early Thursday the violence was in stark contrast to the spirit of the Arab League deal that Syria signed on to and is raising doubts about the regime's "true intentions." "We strongly condemn the Syrian leadership's policies of oppression against its own people, which are turning the country into a bloodbath," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said, adding that no administration "can come out a winner from a struggle against its own people." Despite the latest violence, the Arab League appeared to be going ahead with plans to send in its first delegation of monitors on Thursday.
The advance team, led by the League's assistant secretary-general, Sameer Seif el-Yazal, was to arrive in Syria later in the day. The team is to arrange logistics for an upcoming mission of around 20 experts in military affairs and human rights, which will head for Syria on Sunday, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa of Sudan.
Another team of 100 observers will leave for Syria within two weeks, according to the plan.
Fresh raids and indiscriminate shooting by government forces on Thursday killed at least six people in the central city of Homs, and in the south and northern provinces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.
Syrian activists have accused Assad's regime of an "organized massacre" in Kfar Owaid, in Syria's Idlib province about 30 miles from the northern border with Turkey. Members of Syria's opposition said the bloodshed was evidence of the authoritarian leader's intent to intensify its crackdown on the uprising before the Arab observers arrive.
The death toll from two days of violence this week topped 200, including up to 70 army defectors killed near the city of Idlib, the activists said.