Observers Head to Syria Amid International Uproar

BEIRUT-- Arab League delegates traveled to Syria Thursday to arrange the deployment of foreign monitors under a plan aimed at ending the regime's deadly 9-month-old crackdown on dissent. They arrive in the midst of a new international uproar over activist reports that government troops killed more than 200 people in two days, with Turkey condemning President Bashar Assad over the "bloodbath."

The opposition suspects Assad's agreement Monday to allow hundreds of Arab League monitors in, after weeks of stalling, is only a tactic to buy time and ward off a new round of international sanctions and condemnation. They said Assad was only intensifying his crackdown ahead of the arrival of the observers, a sure sign he is not sincere about calming violence.

Activists have accused government troops of a "massacre" on Tuesday in Kfar Owaid, a village in the rugged mountains near Syria's northern border with Turkey. A witness and activist groups said military forces completely surrounded about 110 unarmed civilians and trapped them in a valley, then proceeded to systematically kill all of them in an hours-long barrage with tanks, bombs and gunfire. No one survived the onslaught, the activists said.

Turkey, which before the uprising was a close ally of Syria, said the violence flew in the face of the spirit of the Arab League deal that Syria signed and raises doubts about the regime's true intentions.

"We strongly condemn the Syrian leadership's policies of oppression against its own people, which are turning the country into a bloodbath," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. It added that that no administration "can come out a winner from a struggle against its own people."

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    On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it was "deeply disturbed" by Tuesday's attack on Kfar Owaid and accused the government of continuing to "mow down" its people. The French foreign ministry said everything must be done to stop this "murderous spiral."

    The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March as Syria has sought to put down the uprising -- part of the Arab Spring of protests that has toppled long-serving unpopular leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

    Fresh raids and indiscriminate shooting by government forces on Thursday killed at least six people in the central city of Homs, and in the south and northern provinces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

    Activists said given the high death toll of the past few days, the Syrian government appears to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before the full Arab League monitoring team arrives.

    Indeed, activists said government forces appeared to have gained full control of the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya region, where Kfar Owaid is located, as of Wednesday evening.

    Many of them blamed the Arab League for giving the Syrian regime a lifeline and a chance to kill more people and called for nationwide protests on Friday against the observer mission. "Protocol of death, a license to kill," was the slogan for the planned protests, a reference to the protocol of the Arab League plan signed by Syria this week.

    In addition to the monitors, the Arab League plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, open talks with the opposition, withdraw military forces from city streets and allow in human rights workers and journalists. The 22-member Arab League has also suspended Syria's membership and leveled economic and diplomatic sanctions.

    Sameer Seif el-Yazal, the assistant Arab League secretary general who is leading the advance team to set up the monitoring mission, said they will work with the Syrians on defining locations to send the observers. An observer team of around 20 experts in military affairs and human rights will head for Syria on Sunday, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa of Sudan.

    "We will carry out some necessary preparations to receive the mission on the ground including housing, transportation and communications and security," he told reporters in Cairo before leaving for Damascus.

    Another team of 100 observers will leave for Syria within two weeks, according to the Arab plan. A total of 500 observers are planned.

    That attack on Kfar Owaid was among the deadliest so far in Syria. The mountainous region of Jabal al-Zawiyah has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests.

    "Thousands of soldiers and special forces have deployed, there are tanks and checkpoints every few meters, snipers everywhere," an activist in Kfar Owaid told The Associated Press by telephone Thursday,

    He said he was on the run and spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his own safety.

    The Syrian government has not commented on the death toll in Kfar Oweid and other areas in the past few days, but state-run news agency SANA said Thursday that dozens of "terrorists" were killed or arrested in the north and in the southern Daraa province during raids and clashes.