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Syrian rebel leader threatens to escalate attacks

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Binsh near Adlb
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Binsh near Adlb

By Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The commander of Syria's armed rebels has threatened to step up attacks on President Bashar al-Assad's forces, saying he was frustrated with Arab League monitors' lack of progress in ending a government crackdown on protests.

"If we feel they (the monitors) are still not serious in a few days, or at most within a week, we will take a decision which will surprise the regime and the whole world," the head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riad al-Asaad, told Reuters in an interview.

The Arab League said on Monday its monitors were helping to stem bloodshed, 10 months into a popular uprising against Syria's ruling family, and asked for more time to do their job.

But since the team's arrival last week, security forces have killed more than 132 people, according to a Reuters tally. Other activist groups say 390 have been killed.

Eighteen security force personnel were killed in the southern town of Deraa as dozens of deserting soldiers returned fire on police who shot at them as they fled their posts, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Security forces also opened fire and killed two people at a protest in the central city of Hama, the same day that activists met monitors and said the team seemed powerless to help them.

The monitors are checking whether Syria is implementing an Arab League peace plan by pulling troops from flashpoint cities and releasing thousands detained in the revolt, one of a series of Arab uprisings that have toppled four leaders in a year.

MAJOR ESCALATION?

Asaad, whose FSA is an umbrella group of armed factions, said he was waiting for the League's report on its first week before deciding whether to make a "transformative shift" that he said would mark a major escalation against the security forces.

"Since they (the monitors) entered, we had many more martyrs," he said, speaking by telephone from his safe haven in southern Turkey. "Is it in the Syrian people's interest to allow the massacre to continue?"

A committee of Arab ministers will discuss the monitors' preliminary report on Saturday, Arab League sources said.

The League mission has already been plagued by controversy. Protesters have complained about its small size and were appalled when the head of the mission suggested he was reassured by first impressions of Homs, one of the main centers of unrest.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday it was crucial that monitors were able to act independently. Protesters have complained that security forces regularly accompany monitors, making them difficult to approach.

"Do they truly have genuinely free access to information? We are waiting for the report they will produce in the coming days for more clarity," Juppe told the French news channel i>tele.

The U.S. State Department noted that violence against the protesters had not stopped, and said it was concerned by reports that soldiers were donning police uniform to mask their actions.

"In some cases the regime is actually putting out its own false reports that monitors are on the way, demonstrators come into the streets, and then they fire on them," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"The Syrian regime has not lived up to the full spectrum of commitments that it made to the Arab League when it accepted its proposal some nine weeks ago."

MONITORS "AFRAID"

Activists who met the monitors in Hama on Tuesday said they doubted whether the monitors had freedom of movement.

Mohammed Abul-Khair told Reuters he was among activists who had met monitors without security escorts present, handing them details of detainees and suspected detention centers. The monitors said they had found it hard to meet activists until now, but appeared sympathetic, he said.

Others said the team seemed unprepared or unwilling. They said the monitors had set up an office in a government-controlled area hard for activists to reach, and complained that many observers did not bring cameras or notepads on visits.

"I don't think they are sympathetic, I think they are afraid," said activist Abu Faisal, also present at the meeting. "We wanted to take them to one of the narrow alleys where there had been a lot of shelling. They wouldn't go past the buildings where there were snipers.

"People here are getting shot. They are here to get the facts but they are cowards and too afraid to do it," he said.

Juppe said he believed in the Arab League's determination, but the United Nations could not stand idly by as more people died. He said Russia continued to block decisive U.N. action.

"The (U.N.) Security Council cannot remain silent," he said. "The savage repression is totally clear, the regime has no real future and that's why it's up to the international community to speak out."

More than 5,000 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on the protests, according to a United Nations estimate.

Armed rebellion has begun to overshadow what began as peaceful protest as rebels fight back. Damascus says it is battling foreign-backed "terrorists" who have killed at least 2,000 members of the security forces.

Rebel leader Asaad last week ordered a stop to attacks on security forces during the monitors' visit, but reports of assaults have continued to come in, highlighting concerns that the FSA does not fully control all armed rebels.

Nuland underscored Washington's repeated warning that an escalation of violence would only exacerbate the problem.

"That's exactly what the regime wants ... to make Syria more violent and have an excuse to retaliate itself," she said.

HUNGER STRIKE

Political detainees at Damascus's central prison started a hunger strike in protest over observers who met jailed felons during a visit, but not political prisoners, their relatives told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"The people the monitors met had nothing to do with recent events, so these (political) prisoners went on strike and are demanding monitors visit them," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the British-based Observatory.

The government bars most foreign journalists from Syria, making it difficult to verify witness accounts.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said on Monday that Syria's military had now withdrawn from residential areas to the outskirts of the cities, but that gunfire continued and snipers were still a threat.

He asked Syrians to "give the monitoring mission a chance to prove its presence on the ground."

Elaraby said the monitors had succeeded in getting food supplies into Homs, one of the centers of the violence, and had secured the release of 3,484 prisoners. Before the mission began, the rights group Avaaz said 37,000 were in detention.

(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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