1:29pm

Wed November 2, 2011
Middle East

Syria Accepts Arab League Plan To End Crisis

Syria accepted an Arab League proposal calling for it to withdraw armored vehicles from the streets and stop violence against protesters in a bid to end the country's seven-month-old political crisis that has led to the deaths of some 3,000 people.

The agreement was announced by Qatar's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim, who urged Damascus to follow through with action on the ground. Syria has continued its bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters despite international condemnation and previous promises of reform.

In the latest violence, machine-gun fire and explosions erupted inside Homs, a city at the heart of the uprising. Activists reported two grisly attacks that killed at least 20 people in the past 24 hours. It was unclear who was behind the latest violence, but activists say the crisis is exacerbating religious and sectarian tensions.

Syria agreed to withdraw all tanks and armored vehicles from the streets, stop violence against protesters, release all political prisoners arrested during the uprising and begin a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks, according to the proposal.

Syria also agreed to allow journalists, rights groups and Arab League representatives to monitor the situation in the country. All have been banned from entering by one of the Arab world's most repressive regimes.

"We are happy to have reached the agreement and we'll be happier if it is carried out," bin Jassim said. "Now it is important for the Syrian side to carry out this agreement because it is what will allow the situation to quiet down and the crisis to be resolved."

"We hope that there will be serious follow-through, whether regarding violence and killing or regarding prisoners," he said.

Arab nations have been eager to avoid a repeat of the civil war in Libya that led to the capture and killing of Moammar Gadhafi. In the proposal, the Arab League said it sought to prevent foreign intervention in Syria — a marked difference from Libya, in which an Arab League decision helped pave the way for a NATO bombing campaign.

The Arab League's Egyptian secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, praised the plan as an "Arab solution" to the Syrian crisis.

But he, like the Qatari foreign minister, insisted Bashar al-Assad's government must work quickly to ensure Syrians find the plan credible and start to feel safe.

For now, the plan is raising more questions than it answers.

Neither Arabi nor the Qatari foreign minister would say what will happen if Assad fails to implement the measures. Nor is it clear Syrian officials would agree to meet with opposition leaders in Cairo as the League wants. There have also been conflicting reports of the views of Syrian opposition groups about a dialogue with the government in Damascus.

The proposal was presented by a council of Arab foreign ministers. Notably, Syrian Foreign Minster Walid al-Moallem did not attend the meeting. Instead, Syria's ambassador to Egypt and the Arab League, Youssef Ahmed, delivered Syria's response.

The U.N. says some 3,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in March.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday he supported the agreement.

"I hope that this agreement will be implemented without delay," he told reporters in Tripoli, Libya, but noting that Assad has not kept past promises.

The fresh bloodshed, which apparently started late Tuesday, suggests Syria is sliding toward chaos amid increasing signs that the crisis was exacerbating religious and sectarian tensions.

The violence shook residents across the city of Homs, which has endured the brunt of the Syrian government's brutal crackdown on dissent.

The Syrian opposition's two main activist groups said gunmen attacked factory workers in the Houla district on Wednesday, killing 11 people. Majd Amer, a local activist, said some of the men were decapitated and others shot in the head, their hands tied behind their backs.

Amateur videos posted online showed the men, bound and gagged, lying on the ground.

The killing spree amounted to a "massacre," said the activist groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist network.

Amer and activist Mohammad Saleh in Homs said gunmen also attacked a bus carrying workers from the nearby village of Jib Abbas as they were returning from their jobs, killing nine passengers. They said the gunmen stopped the bus, released the female passengers, then killed the others.

The activists said the army brought in heavy reinforcements to the streets of Homs on Wednesday morning. Heavy machine-gun fire and explosions could be heard on the streets, and residents said most people had stayed home because of the violence.

Syria has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online, witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press

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