Demonstrators protest against Syria"s President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Idlib, 6 January 2012
The Syrian government has continued its crackdown
on protesters despite action by the Arab League.

Foreign ministers from the Arab League are due to meet to debate the initial findings of their mission in Syria and to discuss whether to ask for UN help.

An observer mission sent by the League to assess a peace plan has been criticised as toothless, as violence continued despite its presence.

At least 27 people died across the country on Saturday, activists said.

The clashes came as thousands joined a state-organised funeral for victims of a bomb blast on Friday in Damascus.

At least 26 people died in that attack, some of them members of the security forces.

‘More independently’

The Arab League observers have been in Syria since late December to monitor compliance with a peace plan under which the government promised to withdraw the military from the streets and cease its use of force against civilians.

At the scene

Mohammad Ballout BBC News, Bousra

The observers visited the town of Bousra on Saturday with their two vehicles escorted by 100 soldiers. They saw a police station destroyed by the insurgents.

The town shows signs of slipping into a sectarian conflict. Its Shia Muslim community of 9,000, living alongside 20,000 Sunnis, has seen its shops and property attacked.

One Shia was killed by angry Sunnis who accuse the Shia community of being in the pay of the regime with its allies, Hezbollah and Iran.

The observers crossed a line of demarcation through the centre of the town to meet, on their own, the people of the Sunni areas who are in revolt.

When they came back, a rally against the regime erupted. Demonstrators demanded the execution of President Assad. The army did not shoot and the observers acted as a buffer between the two sides.

On the way back, angry villagers stopped the convoy to demand and obtain a meeting with the observers. The army and the media retreated from the scene, allowing the observers to interpose yet again before leaving in peace for their base in Deraa.

The ministers meeting in Cairo are expected to examine a proposal by Qatar for UN human rights experts to be invited to assist their work, in order to judge whether the Syrian authorities are honouring their pledge.

They will also look at how the observers can operate more independently of Syrian authorities. Currently they are required to be escorted by members of the Syrian security officials.

The UN says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began 10 months ago.

Critics say Mr Assad is using the monitors’ presence as a political cover and that attacks continue.

According to the Syrian opposition Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), 27 people died around the country on Saturday – eight in Homs, 13 in Idlib, five in the suburbs of Damascus and one in Hama.

Local opposition groups said 35 had been killed on Friday, in the anti-government protests which have routinely followed Friday prayers. None of these numbers can be verified.

Pro-Assad chants

Saturday’s funerals were held at a mosque in the district of Midan, where Friday’s bomb attack took place. It is usually a hotbed of protests against the government.

Syria deaths

  • More than 5,000 civilians have been killed, says the UN
  • UN denied access to Syria
  • Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrian nationals who have fled
  • The death toll is compiled as a list of names which the UN cross-references
  • Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
  • Tally does not include serving members of the security forces

Source: UN’s OHCHR

But analysts said the ceremony and procession had clearly been organised by the authorities, with many participants carrying pictures of Mr Assad or national flags, which were also used to cover the coffins.

Some of those taking part were also heard chanting pro-government slogans, like “The people want Bashar al-Assad!” and “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!”.

The Damascus blast happened at a busy junction in the Midan district of Damascus.

Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar blamed the attack on a suicide bomber, who he said had “detonated himself with the aim of killing the largest number of people”.

The government has vowed to “strike back with an iron fist” against the perpetrators.

But the country’s main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) said the attacks had been carried out by Mr Assad’s government to discredit its critics.

Two weeks ago 44 people died in similar blasts also blamed on terrorists but which opposition groups accused the government of staging.

Syria Crisis