A Sudanese general flew to Damascus Sunday to head an Arab League mission that will check Syria's compliance with an Arab peace plan to halt a nine-month crackdown on unrest in which more than 5,000 people have been killed.
General Mohammed al-Dabi's arrival coincided with fresh violence in the restive central city of Homs and followed twin suicide bombings that killed 44 people in Damascus Friday.
Syria has endured daily bloodshed for months as security forces struggle to suppress a popular uprising, at first peaceful but now increasingly violent, against President Bashar al-Assad whose family has ruled for more than four decades.
In his Christmas Day address, Pope Benedict, leader of the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, called for an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed.
Three more people died in Homs Sunday, where troops backed by tanks and armoured vehicles have been in action for weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said one civilian was shot dead and two died of wounds.
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The British-based group said 124 people had also been wounded in shelling of the city's rebellious Bab Amro district.
Assad's opponents have voiced scepticism about the Arab mission to monitor a peace plan they say Assad will not honour, given the continuing fierce repression against demonstrators.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed Islamist terrorists who they say have killed 2,000 members of the security forces since the unrest flared in March.
Dabi said he had met Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in Cairo before departing for Damascus, laying down a road map for the mission's work, which he promised would be transparent.
In remarks carried on the Egyptian state news agency, Dabi said the mission would meet different groups in Syria, including the armed forces and members of the opposition.
Syrian state media have not reported Dabi's arrival.
ARAB PEACE PLAN
The Arab League expects to send a total of 150 monitors to Syria and Elaraby has said it would only take a week to find out if the authorities are respecting the terms of its peace plan.
After six weeks of stalling, Syria signed a protocol this month to admit the monitors under the plan, which calls for an end to violence, the withdrawal of troops from the streets, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the League, which has imposed sanctions and suspended Syria's membership, should step up pressure on Assad's by asking the U.N Security Council to adopt the Arab initiative.
We want this regime to leave so that we can live in peace. The world should not stand watching over the bodies of men, women and children, the exiled opposition leader said in a Christmas video address to Syrians.
It is not reasonable that the blood of Syrians is flooding in Homs and Idlib while the international community does not move to stop the fascist regime, Ghalioun said.
Idlib, a northwestern province bordering Turkey, has become a battleground for security forces and insurgents.
The suicide bombings that targeted security buildings in the Syrian capital occurred a day after an Arab League preparatory mission arrived there. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks but the authorities have accused al Qaeda.
Assad's opponents say they suspect his government carried out the bombings itself to prove to the world that Syria is facing indiscriminate violence by armed Islamists and to intimidate the work of the Arab League monitors.
Washington condemned the blasts and said they should not be allowed to impede the Arab plan. The United Nations, which says the death toll in Syria exceeds 5,000, also voiced concern.
Assad, 46, who succeeded his father in 2000, has responded to popular calls for him to step down with a mixture of force and promises of reforms, announcing an end to a state of emergency, giving citizenship to tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds, and promising a parliamentary election in February.
But increasingly bloody armed confrontations have fuelled fears that Syria could descend into a sectarian-tinged civil war pitting majority Sunni Muslims against members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Vatican City; Editing by Alistair Lyon)