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Syria agrees to Arab League monitors

December 19, 2011 |  5:56 am

Syria has signed a protocol for Arab observers to monitor a regional peace initiative aimed at ending months of bloodshed
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- After prevaricating for weeks, Syria on Monday signed a protocol for Arab observers to monitor a regional peace initiative aimed at ending months of bloodshed.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moalem said the agreement was signed in Cairo after the Arab League agreed to amendments to protect the country's sovereignty and ensure coordination with the government. He did not elaborate.

"This is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the observer mission from the Arab League,” Moalem told reporters in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Moalem rejected accusations that Syria had been buying time to pursue a bloody crackdown against a 9-month-old uprising that poses the most serious threat yet to the government of President Bashar Assad. He blamed the signing delay on the league, which he said had until recently refused to consider changes to its plan.

"Some of the Arabs want to internationalize our crisis," Moalem said.

An advance team will head to Syria within days to prepare for the arrival of about 100 monitors, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby told reporters in Cairo. He said there were no immediate plans to lift regional sanctions, as requested by Syria, a step that would require a league ministerial meeting.

The Arab League had threatened to ask the U.N. Security Council to intercede if the document was not signed by Wednesday. Until last week, Syria could count on its allies, Russia and China, to use their veto power to block action by the Security Council. But on Thursday, Russia circulated a draft resolution calling on all sides in Syria to halt hostilities, a proposal supported by China.

Moalem said Russia had advised Syria to sign the league protocol "and we followed their advice."

Syria has found itself increasingly isolated over its handling of the crisis, which the United Nations says has claimed more than 5,000 lives since the start of major anti-government protests in March.

The league, which has often been criticized for refusing to stand up to member nations, suspended Syria and imposed sweeping sanctions last month when Damascus refused to agree to observers to monitor a league-negotiated plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.  The European Union, the United States and former ally Turkey have also imposed punitive measures.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, said Monday that security forces had killed 937 people since Nov. 11, when Syria refused to sign the league's protocol. They include 80 children, 29 women and 59 people who died under torture, according to the group.

The government blames the bloodshed on what it describes as armed terrorist gangs, incited and supported from abroad. It says more than 1,100 security force members have been killed.

Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it virtually impossible to verify either side's claims.

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-- Alexandra Zavis. Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.

Photo: Pro-regime demonstrators rally Monday in Damascus, Syria. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press

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