BEIRUT - Syrian security forces shot dead 17 protesters on Thursday, six of them in a city being visited by Arab League monitors checking on President Bashar Assad's compliance with a pledge to stop a military crackdown on popular unrest.
The Arab League is hoping its deal with Assad can put an end to nine months of bloodshed in which well over 5,000 people have been killed by a United Nations count, provoking international sanctions against Damascus and raising fears of wider conflict.
But anti-Assad activists have said the monitoring mission is too small and easily restricted by state security agents determined to cover up abuses. There have also been questions about its leader, a Sudanese general whose government has defied an international war crimes tribunal over bloodshed in Darfur.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad's security forces opened fire on protests in cities around the country. Six died in Hama, a major hotbed of unrest, shortly after the arrival of monitors for a first look.