Syrian protesters near Damascus 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)
BEIRUT - Syrian forces killed at least 56 people in the past 24 hours in the province of Idlib in violence raging ahead of the start of a mission to monitor President Bashar Assad's implementation of an Arab League peace plan, activists said on Wednesday.
The escalating death toll in nine months of popular unrest has raised the specter of civil war in Syria with Assad still trying to stamp out protests with troops and tanks despite international sanctions imposed to push him onto a reform path.
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The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had the names of 56 "civilians and activists" killed in Idlib's Jabal al-Zawiyah region on Tuesday and the death toll could be as high as 121.
Idlib, a northwestern province bordering Turkey, has been a hotbed of protest during the revolt against Assad, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world this year, and has also seen escalating attacks by armed insurgents against his forces.
The Observatory said rebels had damaged or destroyed 17 military vehicles in Idlib since Sunday and killed 14 members of the security forces on Tuesday in an ambush in the southern province of Deraa, where anti-Assad protests began in March.
Events in Syria are hard to verify because authorities have banned most independent reporting. But Tuesday's bloodshed brought the death toll reported by activists in the last 48 hours to over 200, reinforcing fears of a slide into civil war.
The main opposition Syrian National Council said 250 people had been killed on Monday and Tuesday in "bloody massacres", and called for the Arab League and United Nations to act to protect civilians.
It demanded "an emergency UN Security Council session to discuss the (Assad) regime's massacres in (Jabal al-Zawiyah) and Homs, in particular" and called for "safe zones" to be set up under international protection.
It also said Jabal al-Zawiyah, Idlib and Homs should be declared disaster areas and urged the International Red Crescent and other relief organisations to provide humanitarian aid.Arab League monitors expected Thursday
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said on Tuesday that an advance observer team would go to Syria on Thursday
to prepare the way for 150 monitors due to arrive by end-December.
Syria stalled for weeks before signing a protocol on Monday to admit the monitors, who will check its compliance with the plan mandating an end to violence, withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
"In a week's time, from the start of the operation, we will know (if Syria is complying)," Elaraby said.
Syrian pro-democracy activists are deeply skeptical about Assad's commitment to the plan, which, if implemented, could embolden demonstrators demanding an end to his 11-year rule, which followed three decades of domination by his father.
France said it hoped the monitors could carry out their mission quickly. But it also said Assad had a record of broken pledges and that Monday's violence showed there "isn't a moment to lose".
"For months we have seen Bashar Assad not keep to commitments he made to
his people and he has increased his efforts to play for time in the
face of the international community," Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard
In recent months, peaceful protests have increasingly given way to armed confrontations, often led by army deserters.
Some opposition leaders have called for foreign military intervention to protect civilians from Assad's forces.
In a show of military power, state television broadcast footage of
live-fire exercises held by the navy and air force, which it said aimed
at deterring any attack on Syria.