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Arab monitors head to Syria amid crackdown

The Arab League sent monitors to Syria on Monday as President Bashar Assad's regime intensified its crackdown on dissent in the week since it agreed 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 that thousands of government troops have been besieging the Baba Amr district of in the central city of Homs for days and that the government is preparing a massive assault on the area.

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

"The repression and unprecedented violence committed by the Damascus regime must cease and everything must be done to stop the drama going on behind closed doors in the city of Homs," he said.

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.

The Arab League plan agreed to by Assad last week 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 on Monday evening 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."

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told reporters after meeting with the monitors that the mission will begin work today. Up to 500 monitors are to be eventually deployed, and Syria has agreed for them to stay one month.

Anwar Malek, a member of the monitoring mission, insisted they will have absolute freedom of movement in Syria, adding that the team will travel to flash-point cities including Homs, Daraa, Idlib and Hama.