BEIRUT — Syria agreed Monday to an Arab League plan to send foreign monitors, bowing to growing international pressure to end its bloody crackdown on a nine-month uprising. However the opposition saw the deal as a stalling tactic, especially given reports by activists that more than 100 people were killed on the same day.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo that an initial mission headed by one of his assistants will go to Syria within a day or two to discuss plans for 500 observers to eventually deploy around the country. He said they will be in small groups of at least 10 and each team will go to a different location.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem rejected accusations the regime was trying to stall, even though it delayed the monitoring agreement for weeks.
"The signing of the protocol is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the Arab League observers," he told reporters in Damascus.
He said the observers will have a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month if both sides agree. The observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," he said. But they will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
The Arab League plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country, along with observers from member countries.
President Bashar Assad's regime accepted the monitors after Arab leaders warned they would turn to the U.N. Security Council to try to end the crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people since March.
Pressure from Syria's longtime ally Russia clearly played a role in the decision to allow observers.
Al-Moallem suggested that Damascus had agreed to sign on the advice of Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council. Two months ago, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria. But Moscow said last week it would work on a draft resolution at the U.N. that criticizes Syria for using disproportionate force against protesters.
The U.N. General Assembly on Monday condemned human rights violations by Assad's government, calling for an immediate end to violence and implementation of the Arab League plan "without further delay."
Violence has escalated in recent weeks in Syria with more frequent armed clashes between military defectors and security forces. The increasing militarization of the conflict has raised fears the country is sliding toward civil war.
Activists said security forces killed up to 70 army defectors Monday as they were deserting their military posts near the Turkish border. At least 30 other people died in other violence across the country, the activists said. If accurate, it would be one of the heaviest daily tolls of the entire revolt.
Security forces shot and killed at least 20 people in the southern province of Daraa, in central Syria's Homs region and in the country's north. One person was killed when security forces opened fire on thousands of mourners in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan. The mourners were attending the funeral of a child who was gunned down by security forces a day earlier.
Syria has placed severe restrictions on journalists, and the reports by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist group could not be independently confirmed.
By signing onto the Arab League plan, the Syrian regime stands to gain more time and to avert – for now at least – the possibility of wider international involvement in the crisis. But critics are skeptical that the regime will allow full, unrestricted access to trouble spots and said it was likely just a delaying tactic.
Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, accused the Assad regime of lying and said the signing was "worthless" in light of the brutal crackdown daily.
"The Syrian regime is maneuvering and wants to buy time," he said in Tunisia, where the group has been holding a three-day conference aimed at unifying Syria's fragmented opposition.
Ghalioun called for Arab military intervention to protect civilians and the creation of humanitarian corridors to deliver aid.
A Syrian-based anti-regime activist who identifies himself as Abu Hamza said the Syrian regime "has signed something it cannot implement." He said if the government withdraws the military from the streets, mass demonstrations will take pace throughout the country.
"This will automatically lead to the downfall of the regime," Abu Hamza said, declining to give his real name for fear of retribution.
The regime claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.
AP writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo. Zeina Karam in Beirut and Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.