Arab League advance team to visit Syria Thursday

By ZEINA KARAM | December 20, 2011 | 8:41 AM EST

A Syrian man gestures under a large poster depicting Syria's President Bashar Assad during a rally in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. Syria signed an Arab League initiative Monday that will allow Arab observers into the country as part of peace deal that aims to end the nation's increasingly bloody 9-month-old crisis, Syria's foreign minister said. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

CAIRO (AP) — Security forces pursuing activists and army defectors shot and killed at least six people in central and northern Syria on Tuesday, activists said, while an Arab League official said an advance team will arrive in Syria this week to prepare for an observer mission as a possible step toward solving the crisis.

Violence in several locations across the country highlighted the difficulties facing the mission tasked with ensuring the Syrian regime's compliance with an Arab League plan for ending the nation's bloody political conflict.

After stalling for weeks, Syria on Monday signed the plan to send foreign monitors, bowing to growing international pressure to end its bloody crackdown on a nine-month uprising which the U.N. says has killed more than 5,000 people.

An Arab League official said Tuesday that the advance team, led by the Arab League's assistant secretary-general Sameer Seif el-Yazal, will travel to Syria Thursday.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told reporters Monday that the advance delegation will include legal, administrative, financial and human rights experts to discuss the makeup of the observer teams.

He said 500 observers will eventually deploy around the country in small groups of at least 10.

Syria's opposition dismissed the deal as a stalling tactic, and the violence continued unabated, with reports by activists that more than 100 people were killed on the same day the pact was signed.

The U.S. said it will judge Syria by its actions.

"We've seen too many broken promises from the Syrian regime. So we're really less interested in a signed piece of paper than we are in actions to implement commitments made," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland Monday night.

The Arab League plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country, along with observers from member countries.

Violence has escalated in recent weeks in Syria with more frequent armed clashes between military defectors and security forces. The increasing militarization of the conflict has raised fears the country is sliding toward civil war.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist group said at least six people were killed by security forces Tuesday in the central city of Homs and in northern Syria.

Also Tuesday, President Bashar Assad issued a new law under which anyone found guilty of distributing weapons with the aim of committing "terrorist acts" would be sentenced to death, state-run news agency SANA said.

The Syrian government claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

SANA said that according to the new law, anyone found guilty of weapons smuggling would be handed sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. Those smuggling and distributing weapons with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts would get a death sentence.


Additional reporting by Maamoun Youssef in Cairo.