BEIRUT - Bashar al-Assad's regime let in outside observers for the first time Thursday to monitor his commitment to halting the crackdown on dissent, even as his security forces unleashed a fiercer onslaught this week, killing more than 200 in two days.
But the Syrian president and his inner circle are veterans at playing for time, maneuvering and denying realities on the ground, and seem confident they can deflect pressure from Arab neighbors without easing their campaign to crush the uprising.
As an advance team for the Arab League observers flew into Damascus, activists said the regime was already acting to prevent the mission from seeing protesters arrested in the crackdown, which is supposed to be part of its mandate. Thousands of prisoners have been moved into military facilities, which are off limits to the monitors, two dissidents said, citing reports from sources on the ground.
By allowing the observers in, Syria has avoided a worse scenario for now, defusing Arab League threats to ask the U.N. Security Council for action against Damascus.
The strategy, opponents and outside observers say, is to keep international pressure at bay for as long as possible while the regime tries to snuff out the uprising. And Tuesday saw the deadliest single attack by government forces so far in the nine-month crackdown.
A witness and activist groups said about 110 unarmed civilians fled the mountain village of Kfar Owaid near the Turkish border and were trapped by military forces, who proceeded to kill them all in an hours-long barrage with tanks, bombs and gunfire. Government forces appeared by Wednesday evening to have gained full control of the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya region, where Kfar Owaid is located.
Fresh raids and gunfire by government forces Thursday killed at least 19 people, mostly in the central city of Homs and northern Idlib province, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.
As the first observers arrived, the regime sought to emphasize its own losses. It said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Rights Council that more than 2,000 soldiers and members of the security forces had died in attacks in the last nine months. It also accused the U.N. of bias, saying U.N. reports claiming a brutal crackdown were false.
Egypt. The country's military-appointed prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, called for national dialogue to resolve the political crisis and pleaded for a two-month calm to restore security after weeks of protests and bloodshed. He also said the military, which took over 10 months ago from ousted President Hosni Mubarak, was eager to relinquish power and deliver Egypt to civilian rule, as demanded by some activists and those still protesting around Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Tunisia. A moderate Islamist party will run most of the government ministries in a new coalition presented by the Cabinet, the first since the first post-
uprising elections. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of the long-banned Ennahda party said the 41-member government would focus on boosting the economy and fighting corruption.
- Associated Press