REPORTING FROM BEIRUT – Syrian opposition activists said there was no sign of a letup in a crackdown against dissent as an advance team from the Arab League arrived in the country Thursday to prepare for the arrival of observers to assess whether the government is complying with a peace initiative.
Antigovernment activists are skeptical that President Bashar Assad’s regime is sincere about implementing the agreement, which calls for a withdrawal of security forces from the streets, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition. They accuse the government of buying time and trying to avoid greater international involvement in a crisis that the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people since the start of major antigovernment protests in March.
Syrian officials blame the persistent bloodshed on what they describe as foreign-backed armed gangs, but say they are committed to finding a political solution.
The government sent a letter Thursday to U.N. bodies saying that more than 2,000 security force members had been killed at a time when “some parties insist on their rejection … that there are terrorist operations in Syria,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Syria has barred most foreign journalists, making it virtually impossible to verify the accounts of either side.
The Arab League delegation arrived amid an international outcry over reports that Syrian forces had killed more than 200 activists, residents and insurgents in two days of violence this week in a mountainous region near the Turkish border. Turkey, a former ally, is now harboring both armed and peaceful dissident groups from Syria, and accuses Damascus of creating a “bloodbath."
The Jabal Zawiya region near the border had become a haven for army defectors, and was the scene of fierce clashes and major protests in recent weeks.
Mohammed Fizo, a member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission reached in southern Turkey, said government forces were going house to house Thursday in Jabal Zawiya, arresting men between the ages of 15 and 45. “Anyone who participated in demonstrations is being taken away,” he said.
He questioned what the Arab League can achieve with so few monitors. A team of about 30 is expected to arrive in Syria this weekend and will grow to about 150 by the end of December, according to a league official who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media. The mission will be led by Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa Dabi of Sudan.
That “is not enough to understand what happened in the Jabal Zawiya mountains, not to mention the whole country,” Fizo said.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, said security forces killed as many as 35 people across the country Thursday. The largest number of deaths, 25, was reported in the central Homs region, where there have been almost daily protests and escalating clashes between government forces and army defectors in recent months.
An activist reached in the city of Homs said there was no sign that the government was easing its crackdown.
The activist, who gave his name as Shadi, said he had seen an older man shot in the head at a checkpoint in downtown Homs on Thursday. “People don’t have much hope or expectations from the observers.… Do they really need more evidence that we are being killed?”
-- Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch. Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.
PHOTO: Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa Dabi, the head of the Arab League monitoring mission to Syria, gestures during a meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, on Dec. 21, 2011. CREDIT: Ashraf Shazly/ AFP/Getty Images.