BEIRUT (Reuters) - The commander of Syria’s armed rebels threatened on Tuesday 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.
The Arab League said on Monday its monitors in Syria were helping to stem bloodshed, 10 months into a mass 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 have at least 129 people, according to a Reuters tally. Other activist groups say 390 has been killed.
The monitors are checking whether Syria is keeping its promise to implement a League peace plan by withdrawing troops from flashpoint cities, starting dialogue with the opposition and releasing thousands detained in the revolt.
Rebel leader Asaad, whose FSA is an umbrella group of armed factions, said he was waiting for the League’s final report on its first week before deciding whether to make a “transformative shift” that he said would mark a major escalation against 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?”
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 centres of unrest.
France’s foreign minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday it was crucial that monitors were able to act independently - protesters have complained that security forces 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 said in an interview on TV news channel i>tele.
Juppe said he was confident about the Arab League’s determination, but the United Nations could not stand idly by as more people died. Russia continued to block U.N. progress on the issue, he said.
“The 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 the crackdown, according to the United Nations’ estimate.
Armed rebellion has begun to overshadow what began as peaceful protests as rebels fight back. Damascus says it is fighting foreign-backed “terrorists” who have killed at least 2,000 members of the security forces.
Rebel leader Asaad ordered a stop to attacks on security forces during the monitors’ visit last week, but reports of assaults have continued to come in, highlighting concerns that the FSA does not fully control rebels.
The state news agency said “terrorists” blew up a gas pipeline running near the central town of Rastan on Tuesday, cutting off supplies to two power plants and extending power cuts by at least an hour daily.
Activists said at least 12 people were killed across the country on Monday. The grassroots Local Coordination Committees, which put Monday’s toll at 23, said the Arab League monitors were unable to end the violence or reach an independent assessment of its causes.
“The Arab League has fallen victim to the regime’s typical traps in which observers have no choice but to witness regime-staged events and move about the country only with the full knowledge of the regime,” the LCC said.
Political detainees at Damascus’ central prison started a hunger strike in protest over an observer visit that met with jailed felons but not with 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.
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.
“We call upon the Syrian government to fully commit to what it promised,” he said. He asked Syrians to “give the monitoring mission a chance to prove its presence on the ground.”
Elaraby said the monitors succeeded in getting food supplies into Homs, one of the centres of the violence, and had secured the release of 3,484 prisoners. Before the mission began, rights group Avaaz said 37,000 were still in detention.
On Sunday, the Arab Parliament, an 88-member committee of delegates from each of the League’s member states, called for the monitors to leave Syria, saying their mission was providing cover for unabated violence and abuses by the government.
Kinan Shami, a member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union activists’ group, told Reuters from Damascus that people were taking huge risks by gathering in cities where Arab League monitors were expected, in the hope of talking to them.
“People expected them in Daraya ... on New Year’s Day and thousands went to the main square, raised the Independence Flag on a mast and gathered around it. Security forces shot at them and killed two protesters,” Shami said.
The government bars most foreign journalists from Syria, making it difficult to verify witness accounts.
Issam Ishak, a senior member of the main opposition Syrian National Council, said the monitors should be given a chance. “Their presence is helping further erode the fear factor and is encouraging the expansion of the protests,” he said.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Andrew Heavens