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Arab League sends monitors to Syria

BEIRUT -- The Arab League sent monitors to Syria Monday even though President Bashar Assad's regime has only intensified its crackdown on dissent in the week since agreeing to the Arab plan to stop the bloodshed.

Activists say government forces have killed several hundred civilians in the past week. At least 23 more deaths were reported Monday from intense shelling in the center of the country, just hours before the first 60 monitors were to arrive. The opposition says thousands of government troops have been besieging the Baba Amr district in the central city of Homs for days and the government is preparing a massive assault on the area.

France expressed strong concerns about the continued deterioration of the situation in Homs. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero demanded Syrian authorities allow the Arab League observers immediate access to the city.

In Cairo, an Arab League official said this monitoring mission was the Syrian regime's "last chance" to reverse course.

"Will they facilitate the mission's work or try and curb its movements? Let's wait and see," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The Arab League plan agreed to by Assad last Monday requires the government to remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. The monitors are supposed to ensure compliance, but so far there is no sign that Assad is implementing any of the terms, much less letting up on his brutal crackdown.

Although Syria shows no sign of altering its course, the Arab League was sticking to its plan. The team, including Iraqis, Tunisians and Algerians, left Cairo Monday night and arrived in Damascus, said Arab League official Ali al-Garoush.

Opposition members say the regime's agreement to the Arab plan is a farce.

"I very much doubt the Syrian regime will allow the observers to do their work," said prominent opposition figure Waleed al-Bunni from Cairo. "I expect them to try and hinder their movements by claiming that some areas are not safe, intimidating them or sending them to places other than the ones they should go to."

Some anti-government protesters have criticized the League's stance to the point of accusing it of complicity in the killings.

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