This post has been updated. See the note below.
REPORTING FROM CAIRO AND BEIRUT — The Arab League is pressing ahead with a heavily criticized observer mission in Syria, saying that it will increase the number of monitors and calling on all sides to halt months of bloodshed.
The announcements came after the head of the mission briefed an Arab League ministerial committee in Cairo on Sunday on the preliminary findings of the observers, who are monitoring Syria's compliance with regional demands to end a violent crackdown on a nearly 10-month uprising.
Opposition activists contend that the mission, the first of its kind for the 22-member-regional bloc, has done little but provide a cover for more violence. Hundreds of people have been killed since Syria agreed Dec. 19 to admit the monitors, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and documents the bloodshed. At least 21 more deaths were reported Sunday, the group said.
Members of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition bloc, and other activists have called on the league to concede that it can’t protect civilians and to ask the U.N. Security Council to step in. The Arab Parliament, a league advisory body, has also declared the mission a failure and called for the immediate withdrawal of the observers.
In a statement Sunday, the ministerial committee urged the Syrian government to fulfill its commitments under a league-negotiated peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners, free access to international media and dialogue with the opposition. The league also reiterated its demand for an end to “all acts of violence from any side.”
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Hamad ibn Jassim Jaber al Thani, who heads the ministerial committee, said he hoped the observers would be able to complete their task. But he told reporters that “this mission won’t last forever. If the killings continue, then the mission’s presence will be useless.”
The committee noted that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has made “partial progress” in fulfilling some of its obligations. It did not elaborate, but the league has previously reported that Syria has released about 3,500 detainees and pulled tanks out of cities. The latter point is disputed by opposition activists.
Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi, who heads the mission, will submit a full report on the monitors’ findings on Jan. 19, the committee said.
Syrian authorities say they are committed to the league’s plan. They blame the continued bloodshed on what they describe as foreign-backed armed terrorists, who they say have killed more than 2,000 members of the security forces since major anti-government protests began in March.
What started as a mostly peaceful uprising has turned more violent in recent months, with military defectors claiming responsibility for attacks against government forces. In all, more than 5,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. estimates.
Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria making it difficult to verify the accounts provided by either side.
Critics contend the 165-member observer mission is too small to monitor trouble spots across a country of about 23 million people. The Qatari prime minister said the league hopes to increase the number of monitors to 300 in the next few days.
International human rights groups also have expressed concern that the monitors are not experienced at uncovering or documenting abuses. League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby will coordinate with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on ways to strengthen the “technical capacity” of the mission, the committee said, including providing training for the monitors.
[Updated 2:55 p.m. Jan. 8: The panel's recommendations did not satisfy activists in some of the country’s major opposition strongholds, which have borne the brunt of the crackdown.
“We don't want new deadlines, additional observers or equipment,” said an activist in the strife-torn city of Homs who goes by the nickname Abu Rami for security sake. “I can hear the gunfire outside. The killings continue.... We ask [the league] to submit the issue to the [U.N.] Security Council.”
Elaraby said there was nothing to prevent the Security Council from acting. “The Security Council has the authority to intervene in any matter under the sun … without needing us,” he said.]
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo and Alexandra Zavis in Beirut
Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.
Photo: Syrians living in Egypt take part in a protest in Cairo on Sunday before a meeting there of Arab League foreign ministers about the league's observer mission in Syria. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / EPA