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Arab League meets to extend mission in Syria

The Arab League met on Sunday for talks expected to extend its heavily criticised observer mission to unrest-swept Syria, where activists said army defectors had briefly overrun a protest hub near Damascus.

The Arab League met on Sunday for talks expected to extend its heavily criticised observer mission to unrest-swept Syria, where activists said army defectors briefly overran a protest hub near Damascus.

A league panel held closed-doors talks to hear a report on the mission ahead of a decisive meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers that was expected to prolong the mission by a month and double the number of observers.

The report blames both sides, the government and opposition, for the bloodshed, according to an Arab diplomatic source. It recommends an extension while cautioning that its observers would not be deployed indefinitely.

Fierce clashes erupted late on Saturday in Douma, just northeast of Damascus, after security forces shot dead four civilians at a funeral in the town, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Groups of deserters took control of all districts in the town of Douma … after fierce fighting” with Syrian security forces, the Observatory’s chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Extend and expand
“Dissident groups withdrew from the town and returned to their bases,” the Britain-based group later said in a statement, without giving a casualty toll for the operation.

Clashes also broke out on Sunday outside Douma between security forces and defectors in what appeared to be a bid by government troops to recapture the town, according to the Observatory.

It said two civilians were shot dead on Sunday in Damascus province, including a 30-year-old man killed at a checkpoint into Douma. It said two officers and a soldier were killed, along with a deserter in the Talfita area of the province.

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, the Arab League looks set to extend and expand its observer mission, despite strong criticism that it has failed to stem 10 months of deadly violence.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi was at the Cairo talks and due to chair a broader meeting of foreign ministers from the 22-member bloc to decide the future of the mission launched a month ago.

The mandate
Sunday’s report was being delivered by the mission’s chief, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi of Sudan, who wants his mandate to be strengthened, not scrapped, a League official said.

In a statement late on Saturday, al-Dabi said the mission’s mandate was “to verify that the Syrian government has implemented the terms of an Arab League plan to solve the crisis, not to stop the bloodshed and violence.”

But the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has been lobbying for UN intervention and said it would reveal “a counter-report” later on Sunday to try to discredit al-Dabi’s account.

The SNC said it also plans to send a delegation to the United Nations to press the Security Council for intervention.

Neighbouring Turkey, which has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, said on Sunday that it was ready to work with the United Nations if a humanitarian crisis developed in Syria.

‘Make peace’
“We hope that before the situation reaches that stage, the Syrian administration will halt the unjust war it has waged against its own people and find ways to make peace with its people,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

“But if a humanitarian tragedy unfolds before our eyes, and if the UN steps in, we are ready to work with the United Nations,” he added.

International pressure has been steadily growing on Assad’s regime, with more than 5 400 people killed since anti-government protests broke out last March, according to UN figures.

The Arab League deployed observers in Syria on December 26, and there are presently 165 monitors on the ground.

The Local Coordination Committees, which organises anti-regime protests, said in a statement on Sunday that 976 people have since been killed in a bloody crackdown on dissent.

Observers to almost double
The SNC has appealed to the Arab League to turn the Syria crisis over to the United Nations. But a mission official, on condition of anonymity, has said the operation would be extended and the number of observers almost doubled to 300.

Qatar has proposed that Arab troops be deployed in Syria, but Damascus rules out the idea.

In violence on Saturday, a roadside bomb killed 17 detainees being transported in a prison truck in Idlib province in the northwest of the country, said the Observatory.

State news agency Sana said “an armed terrorist group” attacked the vehicle in al-Mastouma area, “killing 14 prisoners and wounding 26 others”.

Nine government troops and a deserter were killed in clashes with dissident soldiers near a military roadblock in the central city of Maaret Numan, the Observatory reported.

Syrian authorities overnight returned the body of a slain Lebanese boy and freed his two uncles, who said they came under fire from Syrian forces in a fishing boat along the maritime border on Saturday.

Riyadh pulling observers
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on Sunday that Riyadh was pulling its observers from the widely criticised observer mission because Damascus had not kept its promises.

Saudi Arabia “is withdrawing from the mission because the Syrian government has not respected any of the clauses” in the Arab plan aimed at ending the crisis there, he said in a statement he made at a ministerial meeting of the 22-member body in Cairo.–SAPA-AFP

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