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Syria death toll climbs despite observer mission

Fourteen Syrians killed Wednesday by Assad regime forces, taking the death toll since Arab League monitors arrived in the country on Monday to 68

AFP , Thursday 29 Dec 2011
Anti-government protesters carry coffins during the funeral of protesters in Syria
Anti-government protesters carry coffins during the funeral of protesters killed in earlier clashes in Damascus suburb of Zabadani December 21, 2011(Photo:Reuters)
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Arab League monitors were due to spread out to more Syrian protest hubs on Thursday even as human rights activists reported new civilian deaths in a regime crackdown on dissent.

At least 68 civilians have been killed by security forces since a first group of monitors arrived Monday in Syria for a month-long renewable mission amid international fears that authorities will hinder their work.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 14 civilians were killed on Wednesday by regime forces in several flashpoints areas, including a five-year-old boy who died in the restive city of Homs.

Activists emboldened by the presence of the monitors have meanwhile called for massive anti-regime rallies across the country on Friday, the weekly day of rest that has been a pivotal time for democracy protests.

"On Friday we will march to the squares of freedom, bare-chested," Facebook activists said in a statement on the Internet.

"We will march as we did in Homs and Hama where we carried olive branches only to be confronted by Bashar's gangs who struck us with artillery and machinegun fire," said the Syria Revolution 2011 activists.

France, the United States and Human Rights Watch have warned the Syrian regime against trying to hide the facts from the monitors and Paris charged the team was not being allowed to see what was happening in Homs.

Those concerns were highlighted when Baba Amro residents on Wednesday refused to allow in observers in because they were accompanied by a Syrian army officer. But the standoff ended when the officer withdrew.

On Tuesday, some 70,000 people flooded the streets of Homs as observers entered parts of the restive city, activists said, adding that Syrian forces used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the protesters.

The rallies took place a day after 34 civilians were killed by security forces in Bab Amro neighbourhood, said activists, who also reported 20 civilians deaths on Tuesday in various parts of Syria.

"The Arab League's initiative is the only ray of light that we now see," the Observatory's chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP on Thursday.

"The presence of the observers in Homs broke the barrier of fear," he added.

On Thursday monitors were to tour the northern provinces of Idlib and Hama as well as Daraa further south, where unprecedented pro-reform protests erupted in mid-March, the head of the mission said.

They would also visit a flashpoint district around the capital Damascus, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer, told AFP on Wednesday.

Dabi has described the visit to Homs as "good" and said Syrian authorities so far have been cooperating with the monitors.

His remarks reportedly triggered ripples of discontent among opposition ranks but Abdel Rahman said it was too early to issue any judgement.

For some Dabi is a controversial figure because he served under Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed in the Darfur region.

The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria after weeks of stalling which also calls for the withdrawal of armed forces from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence and the release of detainees.

The French foreign ministry on Wednesday warned against manipulation by the Syrian regime and said the observers' visit to Homs had been too brief.

"The... observers must be allowed to return without delay to this martyr city, to travel everywhere in it freely and to have the necessary contact with the public," said spokesman Bernard Valero.

Syria ally China however expressed support for the monitors on Thursday but foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei also urged all parties concerned to help make the mission a success.

China "hopes parties concerned can make joint efforts to earnestly implement the mission protocol to create conditions for the proper settlement of Syria's crisis," the spokesman said in Beijing.

According to UN estimates announced in early December, more than 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown on dissent since mid-March.

The Observatory says at least seven soldiers -- four loyalists and three deserters -- were killed in separate clashes on Wednesday while on Thursday an army general was gunned down near Homs by unknown assailants.

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