Government promises full cooperation with Arab League officials, but activists say wounded prisoners and torture victims are already being moved.
Activists warn of deceptions as Arab League monitors enter Syria
DAMASCUS // Arab League monitors charged with overseeing an end to violence headed to Syria yesterday, with a promise of full cooperation from the authorities and warnings from activists that steps were already being taken to deceive them.
The advance group of about 12 officials, led by the senior Arab League figure, Samir Seif Al Yazal, will set up basic logistics for the monitoring teams, which are due to begin to arriving on Sunday.
Their presence in Damascus coincides with one of the bloodiest periods of the nine-month uprising.
Opposition groups said more than 250 civilians and army defectors have been killed by security forces in the past 48 hours, mainly in Idleb and Deraa.
Military operations were also under way in the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor, as well as rural Damascus, activists said.
Syrian officials describe recent military offensives as targeting only "terrorists" and have guaranteed Damascus will honour the Arab League observers agreement, signed in Cairo on Monday.
"It is in our interests to see this mission succeed, because its task is to examine the situation on the ground, and it will realise that things are not black or white - they are much more complex," said Jihad Makdisi, the foreign ministry spokesman.
Foreign minister Walid Moallem has said the observers will be allowed into protest hot spots. He believes the monitors' findings will support the government's insistence it is fighting armed insurgents, rather than violently suppressing largely peaceful political demonstrations as contended by opposition groups, human rights monitors and Syria's international critics, including the United Nations.
More than 5,000 civilians and defecting soldiers have been killed by security services since March, according to the UN. It based its human rights report on testimonies collected from outside of Syria because its monitoring team was not permitted entry.
The Syrian authorities have said the report has no credibility because it was based on dubious sources.
Yesterday Syria's state-run news agency said more than 2,000 soldiers and members of the security forces have died in attacks in the past nine months. The figures were in a letter sent by the Syrian government to the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council.
The Arab League chief, Nabil Al Arabi, has acknowledged his observers faced a daunting task establishing the facts in a hotly contested environment that in places already resembles a war zone. He called it a "completely new mission in every sense of the word".
But he also said it will take just one week to know if the Syrian authorities were complying with the deal, stressing "implementation in good faith" was essential.
Opposition activists said that good faith had already been undermined, not only by the ongoing use of deadly violence against protest neighbourhoods, but also by the authorities actively working to cover up their actions on the ground.
One of the clauses of the final protocol agreed by Syria and the Arab League prevents monitors from accessing military zones, which, according to opposition groups, gives the government wide scope to declare areas out of reach.
"They have already started moving wounded prisoners and torture victims into military facilities and military hospitals where they will be off limits to the observers," said one activist.
"They [the authorities] can put a few soldiers on guard at any building they want to hide and 'well, that's a military area so you can't go in'. They can also stop anyone talking to the ordinary soldiers."
A series of military and security installations in and around Damascus have been identified by activists as major detention facilities implicated in abuses of detainees. Those will all be out of bounds to the monitors under the terms the Arab League agreed.
No non-Syrians have been allowed to inspect detention facilities in military bases or security service offices, where the bulk of political prisoners are thought to be held. This year the Red Cross was, for the first time, given limited access to a prison for criminals in Damascus but there have been no repeat visits.
Syrian officials deny using torture against detainees and have saidthat all arrests are made in accordance with the law.
Arab League observers will also be required to inform the Syrian authorities in advance where they plan to travel, although it is unclear if that will involve a detailed daily disclosure of the team's itinerary or a more general outlining of areas of interest.
With the Syrian government responsible for the monitors' safety, analysts said officials were certain to argue they must be told specific details about travel plans.
For the same reason, observers may not be able to visit areas the authorities deem to be too dangerous, activists said, or will be accompanied by armed Syrian security teams, further undermining their chances of unfettered access to protests areas.
"We expect lots of tricks, it will be a dirty game," an activist said. "Soldiers and secret police will be dressed up in ordinary police clothes, shabbiha [pro-government militia] will be pulled out of areas before the monitors arrive, any blood will be washed off the streets."
Activists say military units are routinely put in civilian clothes or police uniforms, and transported in ordinary buses, rather than clearly marked military vehicles, to hide their identities.
In some areas, including Homs, residents said armoured vehicles have been painted blue, in an effort to portray them as police rather than army equipment.
Under its November 2 agreement with the Arab League, Syria should have pulled all military forces out of urban centres, released all political prisoners and begun talks with the opposition.
Failure to implement that deal resulted in the Arab League imposing economic sanctions, in addition to Syria's suspension from the organisation.
At least 150 human rights, legal and security experts are expected to have taken up position in the country by the start of January. The mission is due to last for a month, with a possible one-month extension by agreement between Damascus and the Arab League.