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Troops 'still killing protesters'

Syrian security forces are still killing anti-government protesters despite the presence of foreign monitors in the country, the head of the Arab League says.

But he insisted the observer mission has yielded important concessions from the Damascus regime, such as the withdrawal of heavy weapons from cities.

Syria's opposition cautioned the observers not to be taken in by President Bashar Assad's government, which has unleashed a withering military assault to crush a nine-month-old uprising. Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the mission, saying it is simply giving Assad cover for his crackdown.

"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," said a statement by the Local Coordinating Committees, an umbrella group of activists.

"This has rendered the observers unable to work or move independently or in a neutral manner," the group said.

The UN estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in mid-March. Activists say that in the week since the observers started their work in Syria on December 27, hundreds have been killed. The LCC put the death toll at more than 390 people since December 21.

"Yes, there is still shooting and yes there are still snipers," Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo. "Yes, killings continue. The objective is for us to wake up in the morning and hear that no one is killed. The mission's philosophy is to protect civilians, so if one is killed, then our mission is incomplete."

"There must be a complete ceasefire," Mr Elaraby said.

Mr Elaraby stressed the achievements of the Arab League mission, saying Syria's government has pulled tanks and artillery from cities and residential neighbourhoods and freed some 3,500 prisoners. He said food supplies have reached residents and the bodies of dead protesters have been recovered.

The monitors are supposed to verify Syria's compliance with an Arab League plan to stop the crackdown on dissent - a plan Syria agreed to on December 19. The plan requires Assad's regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners.

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