BEIRUT (AP) - The Arab League sent monitors to Syria Monday even though President Bashar Assad's regime has only intensified its crackdown on dissent in the week since agreeing to the Arab plan to stop the bloodshed.
Activists say government forces have killed several hundred civilians in the past week. At least 23 more deaths were reported Monday from intense shelling in the center of the country, just hours before the first 60 monitors were to arrive in the evening. In Cairo, an Arab League official said this mission was the Syrian regime's "last chance" to reverse course.
"Will they facilitate the mission's work or try and curb its movements? Let's wait and see," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The Arab League plan agreed to by Assad last Monday requires the government to remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. The monitors are supposed to ensure compliance, but so far there is no sign that Assad is implementing any of the terms, much less letting up on his brutal crackdown.
Although Syria shows no sign of altering its course, the Arab League was sticking to its plan. The team, including Iraqis, Tunisians and Algerians, left Cairo Monday evening headed to Damascus.
Opposition members say the regime's agreement to the Arab plan is a farce.
"I very much doubt the Syrian regime will allow the observers to do their work," said prominent opposition figure Waleed al-Bunni from Cairo. "I expect them to try and hinder their movements by claiming that some areas are not safe, intimidating them or sending them to places other than the ones they should go to."
Some anti-government protesters have even criticized the League's stance to the point of accusing it of complicity in the killings.
In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told reporters after meeting with the monitors that the mission will begin work on Tuesday. Up to 500 monitors are to be eventually deployed and Syria has only agreed for them to stay one month.
Anwar Malek, a member of the monitoring mission, insisted they will have absolute freedom of movement in Syria, adding that the team will travel to flashpoint cities including Homs, Daraa, Idlib and Hama. He and other observers refused to disclose the exact travel itinerary, saying they preferred to maintain some secrecy to ensure the mission's success.
The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions on Damascus but is deeply divided on how to respond to the crisis. Gulf countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have taken a tougher line and are more inclined toward Security Council action on Syria. But other countries, wary of Syria's influence in the region, prefer an Arab solution to the crisis.
Activists say the regime has only stepped up its crackdown on anti-government protesters in the week since it agreed to the Arab plan. At least 275 civilians have been killed by government forces since then, and another 150 people died in clashes between army defectors and regime troops - most of them defectors.
The stepped up crackdown, including what activists said was a "massacre" in one town where 110 people were mowed down in several hours last week, brought a new round of international condemnation of Syria. Neighboring Turkey said the violence flew in the face of the Arab League deal that Syria signed and raises doubts about the regime's true intentions.
Syria's top opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, doubtful that the Arab League alone can budge Assad, called Sunday for the League to bring the U.N. Security Council into the effort. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March in the political violence.
Assad stalled for weeks on agreeing to the plan and signed only after the Arab League threatened to turn to the U.N. Security Council to help stop the violence. The opposition believes the authoritarian leader is only trying to buy time and forestall more international sanctions and condemnation.
The U.N.'s most powerful body remains deeply divided over Syria, which has led to its failure to adopt a resolution on and heightened tensions especially among major powers. Western nations and the U.S. are demanding a resolution threatening sanctions if the violence doesn't stop and condemning Assad's crackdown. But Russia and China, which have closer ties to Assad's regime, believe extremist opponents of the government are equally responsible for the bloodshed and oppose any mention of sanctions.
After months of largely peaceful protests that were met with brute force and bullets, some opposition figures have started calling for international military intervention, but that is all but out of the question in Syria, in part because of fears that the move could spread chaos across the Middle East. Syria is a close ally of Iran, borders Israel, and holds sway over the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which now dominates Lebanon's government.
The opposition warned that the government, which has been besieging the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs for days, was preparing a massive assault on the area. Activists said the forces shelled the area with mortars and sprayed heavy machine gun fire in the most intense assault since the siege began Friday.
The Baba Amr district has been a center for anti-government protests and army defections and has seen repeated crackdowns by the Syrian regime in recent months. The Syrian conflict is becoming increasingly militarized with growing clashes between army defectors and troops.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, described the attacks in Homs as a kind of "hysteria" as government forces desperately try to get the situation there under control ahead of the monitors' arrival.
"The observers are sitting in their hotel in Damascus while people are dying in Homs," he said.
The Observatory called on the monitors "to head immediately to Baba Amr to be witnesses to the crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated by the Syrian regime."
France expressed strong concerns about the continued deterioration of the situation in Homs and urged Syria's government to allow Arab League observers immediate access. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Syrian authorities should allow the observers access to the city "starting this afternoon."
Amateur videos posted by activists on the Internet Monday showed gruesome footage of at least four corpses lying in pools of blood in front of a house in Baba Amr, where they reportedly died from mortar shells that struck the neighborhood.
Men could be heard crying for help and women wailing in the video, which also showed several destroyed homes and cars. Other footage showed at least six bodies wrapped in white plastic bags in a home, relatives crying besides them.
A resident of a neighborhood next to Baba Amr said he heard "loud explosions" throughout the night and Monday morning.
"It doesn't stop," he told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network reported at least 23 deaths in intense shelling "targeting homes and anyone who moves" in Baba Amr.
Syrian officials did not comment on the violence in Baba Amr but said armed terrorist groups attacked civilians and security forces in villages in southern Syria. State-run news agency SANA said troops retaliated and killed a number of the gunmen.