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Syrian army defectors hold fire during Arab League mission
BEIRUT (AP) ' The rebel Free Syrian Army said Friday it has stopped its offensive against government targets during a month-long mission by Arab Legue monitors, saying it wants to expose how the regime is killing peaceful protesters.
The leader of the FSA, breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, said his troops have halted the attacks since the observers arrived on Tuesday. The government insists terrorists and gangs are driving nine months of crisis in Syria.
"We stopped to show respect to Arab brothers, to prove that there are no armed gangs in Syria, and for the monitors to be able to go wherever they want," al-Asaad told The Associated Press by telephone from his base in Turkey.
"We only defend ourselves now. This is our right and the right of every human being," he said, adding that his group will resume attacks after the observers finish their mission.
The Free Syrian Army says it is comprised of some 15,000 army defectors who abandoned the regime during the uprising. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on government installations that have killed scores of soldiers and members of the security forces.
Also Friday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said an initial assessment by Arab League observers in Syria was "reassuring," even as activists reported fresh violence by security forces that killed at least nine people.
Moscow is one of Syria's few remaining allies following more than nine months of violence stemming from a massive protest movement. The United Nations says some 5,000 people have been killed in the government crackdown on dissent.
"Moscow appraises with satisfaction the real beginning of the Arab League activities in Syria," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The ministry noted that the Sudanese general who heads the mission visited the restive city of Homs.
"The situation there is reassuring, clashes have not been recorded," the statement said.
There is broad concern about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor compliance with a plan to end to the crackdown on political opponents by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
On Friday, activists said security forces fired on protesters in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the southern city of Daraa and elsewhere, killing at least five people.
Another four were reported killed in the town of Talkalakh, near the border with Lebanon, in an ambush by government troops. It was not immediately clear why they were killed as the victims were not believed to be protesting at the time, activists said.
The presence of Arab League monitors in Syria has re-energized the anti-government protest movement, with tens of thousands turning out this week in cities and neighborhoods where the observers are expected to visit.
The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces, apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab observers began their one-month mission on Tuesday.
The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League plan to end President Bashar Assad's crackdown on dissent.
The plan, which Syria agreed to on Dec. 19, demands that the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.
State-run TV said observers have reached Idlib province, which borders Turkey; Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma. Activists said the army had either withdrawn or hid tanks in the mountains in Idlib.
On Thursday, security forces killed at least 26 people, four of them shot dead in the Damascus suburb of Douma during a protest by tens of thousands. The crowd had gathered at the mosque near to a municipal building where cars of the monitors had been spotted outside.
Authorities apparently are worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square, which was the focus of protests that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February.
The ongoing violence, and new questions about the human rights record of the head of the Arab League monitors, are reinforcing the opposition's view that Syria's limited cooperation with the observers is nothing more than a ploy by Assad's regime to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.
Although the violence against protesters has not stopped, Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the death toll would have probably been double what it is had there been no monitors on the ground.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Thursday expressed concern that violence was continuing in Syria despite the presence of the monitors.
She said the monitors were providing "some space for public expression," citing videos on YouTube of a large democracy rally in Idlib, but insisted that Assad's regime needed to do more.
"It's not only a matter of deploying the monitors," she added. "It's a matter of the Syrian government living up to its commitments to withdraw heavy weapons from the cities; to stop the violence everywhere, which clearly has not happened; to release all political prisoners."