Syria says accepts Arab plan for observer mission

Five civilians killed in new Syrian violence

Syria said on Monday it will allow observers into the country as part of an Arab League plan to end months of deadly unrest, in a turnabout which could stave off crippling regional sanctions.

"The Syrian government responded positively to the signing of the protocol" on the dispatch of observers "based on the Syrian understanding of this cooperation," foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told reporters.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had sent a message to the Arab League to that effect on Sunday night, as an Arab League deadline was set to expire, paving the way for the signing of the protocol, Makdisi said.

Damascus had until now refused to sign the protocol, arguing that the text contained wording that undermined Syrian sovereignty.

The international community wants monitors to be deployed in Syria to keep a check on forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who have been accused by the United Nations of rights abuses.

The UN estimates that at least 4,000 people have been killed since March in Syria, where regime forces have brutally suppressed a popular revolt against Assad's government.

At least another 63 people were killed in violence across the country at the weekend, said human rights activists, who also reported four more deaths on Monday in the flashpoint region of Homs.

Syria has asked in its message to the Arab League for "minor changes which do not touch on the substance of the protocol and for clarifications that are not linked to the nature of the mission," Makdisi said.

"We asked them for the names and nationalities of the observers" he said.

"We hope for a positive reply," Makdisi added. "The success of this mission depends on Arab intentions."

Syria insists on the terms of Article 8 of the Arab League's charter which stipulates that member states must respect the systems of government in other member states and avoid any action to change them, Makdisi said.

Last month Syria was suspended from the 22-member Arab bloc amid mounting calls from world leaders for Assad to quit for failing to halt the bloodshed in his country.

The deployment of an observer mission is part of the League's proposal to end the violence in Syria, which is raging on despite offers of political reforms by Assad.

Sunday's deadline was announced in Doha by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who also warned against the internationalisation of the Syrian crisis if Damascus did not heed the Arab call.

"As Arabs we fear that if the situation continues things will get out of Arab control," Sheikh Hamad said.

His comments came after an Arab League ministerial panel on Saturday imposed fresh sanctions on Syria, following an initial wave of sweeping measures against the Assad regime adopted on November 27.

The sanctions voted last month included an immediate freeze on transactions with Damascus and its central bank and of Syrian regime assets in Arab countries.

On Saturday in Doha, the Arab panel put 19 Syrian officials on a blacklist banning them from travel to Arab countries and saying their assets would be frozen by those states.

The panel also called for an embargo on the sale of Arab arms to Syria and cut by half the number of Arab flights into and out of Syria -- including its national carrier Syrian Air -- with effect from December 15.

Syria has already been hit by a raft of EU and US sanctions and last Friday the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution "strongly condemning the continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities."

Damascus -- which accuses "armed terrorist groups" of fuelling the unrest -- rejected the resolution as "unjust" and said it was "prepared in advance by parties hostile to Syria."

Iraq said it is opposed to sanctions on Syria, a dominant trading partner, while Jordan said on Monday it does not want to impose trade sanctions and a flight ban on Damascus because they will harm Jordanian interests.

Five civilians killed in new Syrian violence

Syrian security forces on Monday shot dead five civilians in Homs province, a day after at least 30 people died in violence in the flashpoint central region, a human rights group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported mutinous soldiers killed four security force members, including an officer, at the southern protest hub of Dael in Daraa province.

A regime truck was also set ablaze during Monday's attack, the Observatory said, adding hundreds of Syrian forces deployed in the town where raids and arrests were underway.

Forces also arrested 18 students, eight of them in the coastal town of Jabla, for allegedly insulting President Bashar al-Assad, as they pressed on with a crackdown on dissent.

Another group of activists meanwhile reported that Syrian authorities arrested blogger Razan Ghazzawi at the border with Jordan as she headed to Amman to take part in a workshop on press freedom.

"Four civilians were killed and five others wounded when shots were fired from a security checkpoint at a funeral in the Homs city neighbourhood of Deir Balaa," the Observatory said in a statement received in Nicosia.

A fifth civilian was shot and killed by security forces near the city's public hospital.

Near Damascus 10 students who took part in an anti-regime protest in the district of Harasta were arrested by the security forces, who also detained eight high school students in the Mediterranean town of Jabla.

The students in Jabla, in western Syria, were "accused of insulting President Assad," the Observatory said, adding the allegations were made by "informants inside the school."

The Observatory also reported harassment of university students by pro-regime students and security forces in the coastal city of Latakia.

The watchdog also said 30 students studying at Latakia's Tishrin University from Daraa, cradle of the anti-regime protests, were detained and another 60 were expelled.

It did not say when the arrests occurred but stressed "that these students were threatened by their peers, subjected to pressure, abuse and insults over sectarian loyalties."

The latest reports of bloodshed and arrests come as the foreign ministry said it has "responded positively" to a request by the Arab League to allow in observers as part of a peace plan to end the unrest.

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