Armed rebels captured dozens of members of the Syrian security forces by seizing two military checkpoints on Monday, opposition figures said, as the Arab League chief reported cautious progress in a peace monitoring mission.

The opposition said army deserters also clashed with security forces at a third checkpoint, killing and wounding an unspecified number of troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.

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On Monday the Arab League said the government had withdrawn its tanks from Syria’s cities, a key demand the Arab bloc had posed on the beleaguered Assad regime.

The statement could not be independently confirmed, and followed two days of conflicting reports over whether its monitors were having any impact at all in stemming the violence. On Sunday an Arab League advisory body called for the immediate withdrawal of monitors, saying they were allowing Damascus to cover up continuing violence and abuses.

Also Monday, a regimelinked Syrian news site reported Assad would deliver a speech over the coming days announcing plans to form a new government including opposition members. The report, carried on the Arabic website Damas Post, could not be confirmed.

After nearly 10 months of violence in which the UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed, an Arab monitoring mission has spent the past week assessing Assad’s compliance with a peace plan.

In partially upbeat comments, Arab League Secretary- General Nabil Elaraby said Syria’s military had withdrawn from residential areas and was on the outskirts of the country’s cities, but gunfire continued and snipers were still a threat. The Arab League plan calls for Assad to withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, release detainees and talk to his opponents.

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“The latest telephone report said there is gunfire from different places, which makes it hard to say who is shooting who,” Elaraby said. “Gunfire should be stopped and there are snipers... We call upon the Syrian government to fully commit to what it promised.”

Elaraby said the monitors had achieved the release of 3,484 prisoners and succeeded in getting food supplies into Homs, one of the centers of the violence.

“Give the monitoring mission the chance to prove its presence on the ground,” he said.

But many Syrian opposition activists are skeptical the mission can put real pressure on Assad to halt the violence.

The reported attacks on military checkpoints came three days after the anti-government Free Syrian Army said it had ordered its fighters to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with the Arab League delegates.

Rami Abdelrahman, director of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Monday’s operation took place in the northern province of Idlib. It was not immediately clear how many people had been killed or captured by the rebels.

Separately, the Observatory said two people were killed by gunfire in Homs on Monday, and the bodies of another two were handed over to their families.

Security forces killed a farmer in Douma, on the northeastern edge of Damascus, as they carried out raids searching for suspects wanted by authorities, it said.

Kinan Shami, a member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union activists group, said from Damascus that people were taking huge risks by gathering in cities where Arab League monitors were expected, in the hope of talking to them.

“People expected them in Daraya yesterday on New Year’s Day and thousands went to the main square, raised the Independence Flag on a mast and gathered around it. Security forces shot at them and killed two protesters,” Shami said.


“The people are trying to show the monitors the repression and are risking their lives to meet them because everywhere they go the monitors are surrounded by security,” he said. “Other than getting arrested and beaten or killed, they could easily face endless counts of treason and communicating with foreign powers.”

But Issam Ishak, a high-level member of the main opposition Syrian National Council, said the monitors must be given a chance.

“Their presence is helping further erode the fear factor and is encouraging the expansion of the protests.”

Ammar Abdulhamid, a US-based Syrian dissident who maintains the blog Syrian Revolution Digest, wrote Sunday, “Many tears were shed throughout Syria in 2011, and 2012 will not be any different, except that some of them might end up being tears of joy as our battle against tyranny succeeds in making one major stride forward by toppling the Assad regime.”

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