BEIRUT (Reuters) - The head of the Arab League has said its peace monitors are helping to ease a violent crackdown on anti-government protests in Syria, but urged President Bashar al-Assad’s government to carry out a peace plan in full.
Meanwhile army defectors whose armed insurgency has threatened to overshadow the peaceful popular uprising captured dozens of members of the security forces by seizing two checkpoints Monday, the opposition said.
Army defectors also clashed with security forces at a third checkpoint, killing and wounding an unspecified number of troops loyal to Assad, opposition activists said.
Assad is struggling to defeat a popular uprising and avoid becoming the latest leader to be toppled by “Arab Spring” revolutions, after those of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
After nearly 10 months of violence in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed, mostly unarmed civilians, an Arab League monitoring mission has spent the past week assessing Assad’s compliance with a peace plan.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said Monday that Syria’s military had now withdrawn from residential areas and was on the outskirts of the cities, but gunfire continued and snipers were still a threat.
“The latest telephone report said there is gunfire from different places, which makes it hard to say who is shooting who,” Elaraby said in Cairo. “Gunfire should be stopped and there are snipers.”
“We call upon the Syrian government to fully commit to what it promised.”
The League’s plan calls for Assad to pull troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and talk to his opponents.
Elaraby said the monitors had secured 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 that the mission can put real pressure on Assad to halt the violence.
Sunday, the Arab Parliament, an 88-member committee of delegates from each of the League’s member states, called for the monitors to leave Syria, saying their mission was providing cover for unabated violence and abuses by the government.
Two people were killed by gunfire in Homs Monday, and the bodies of another two were handed over to their families, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
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... 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 senior 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.”
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 while it tried to arrange a meeting with the Arab League delegates.
Rami Abdelrahman, director of the Observatory, said Monday’s operation had taken place in the northern province of Idlib. It was not immediately clear how many people had been killed or captured by the rebels.
The government bars most foreign journalists from operating in Syria, making it difficult to verify witness accounts. Assad blames the unrest on foreign-backed armed Islamists who officials say have killed 2,000 security personnel.
The state news agency SANA said a worker at a school in the city of Hama had been killed by armed men who captured her three days ago after her husband, who worked at the same school, refused their demands that he leave his job.
SANA also said a journalist working for state radio had died Monday from wounds sustained when gunmen shot him several days ago in Daraya, in Damascus province.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; writing by Mark Trevelyan and Kevin Liffey; editing by Jon Boyle