Demonstrators against Syria's President Bashar Assad display a… (Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian opposition activists reported at least 24 people were killed Saturday as the deadline for Syria to begin implementing an Arab League-sponsored peace plan expired.
The 22-nation Arab bloc had given President Bashar Assad until Saturday to start putting into place a plan that calls for a withdrawal of troops, a release of political prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.
There was no official word from the league as to whether it believed Syria had complied with the demands.
Arab foreign ministers were seeking to send a group of monitors to Syria to observe the situation. But Syria and the league were haggling over the terms of the observer mission. It was unclear whether a solid agreement had been reached on the issue.
The league has threatened economic and other sanctions against Syria if it does not comply with the peace plan.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that the 8-month-old conflict in Syria could be headed toward civil war. Army defectors and others have taken up arms against the Syrian government.
A leading opposition coalition, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, said government security forces killed at least 24 people Saturday, including 10 in the volatile central region of Homs. The casualty figures could not be independently verified.
Homs has become the focal point of the rebellion. The region has suffered more casualties than any other area, human rights activists say.
The rebellion in Syria is driven by the nation's Sunni Muslim majority. Assad is a member of the small Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Alawites play a prominent role in the security service and military command. Activists and others have reported sectarian attacks in Homs, including assassinations and kidnappings.
The government Saturday reported the arrests of 18 "terrorists" in Homs for alleged killings and kidnappings, according to the official SANA news agency.
Authorities also reported a sweep in the northwestern province of Idlib that resulted in 140 arrests in the "hide-outs of terrorist groups." An opposition activist coalition termed the campaign in Idlib "collective punishment," saying authorities had cut off fuel, electricity and phone lines to the town of Maaret Naaman.
The conflict has left at least 3,500 dead, mostly civilians, according to the United Nations. The Syrian government says "armed groups" have killed more than 1,000 security personnel.