Syria rejects unity plan as bloody conflict rages on

Syria has rejected the Arab League’s wide-ranging new plan to end the country’s 10-month crisis, saying the League’s call for a national unity government in two months is a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty, as violence raged.

Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in a suburb outside the capital Damascus to mourn 11 residents who were either shot dead by security forces or killed in clashes between army defectors and troops a day earlier, activists said.

An activist group said 23 people were killed across Syria on Monday.

The crowd in Douma—which one activist said was 60 000-strong—was under the protection of dozens of army defectors who are in control of the area after regime forces pulled out late on Sunday, said Samer al-Omar, a Douma resident.

The reports could not be independently confirmed.

In Syria’s north, opposition figure Radwan Rabih Hamadi was killed in an ambush by unknown gunmen in the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya mountain region, activists said. Hamadi (46) was a prominent figure in the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad blames the March uprising on terrorists and armed gangs acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilise the country. His regime has retaliated with a brutal crackdown that the UN says has killed more than 5 400 people.

Increasing violence
There is growing urgency, however, to find a resolution to a crisis that is growing increasingly violent as regime opponents and army defectors who have switched sides have started to fight back against government forces.

The Arab League has tried to stem the bloodshed by condemning the crackdown, imposing sanctions and sending a team of observers to the country.
On Sunday, the League called for a unity government within two months, which would then prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held under Arab and international supervision.

The proposal also provides for Assad to give his vice-president full powers to cooperate with the proposed government to enable it to carry out its duties during a transitional period.

The state-run news agency, SANA, said on Monday that Damascus considers the plan “flagrant interference in its internal affairs” and the latest turn in an international plot against Syria.

It was not immediately clear what steps, if any, Syria could take to counter the Arab League’s stance.

In Washington, state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said it was regrettable that Assad rejected the League’s transition proposal “almost before the ink was dry”.

“This just speaks again to the fact that he’s thinking about himself and his cronies, not about his people,” Nuland told a news briefing on Monday.

Extended sanctions
The European Union backed the Arab plan on Monday and it extended existing sanctions against Assad’s government by adding 22 more officials and eight companies to the blacklist.

In New York, German UN ambassador Peter Wittig on Monday called on fellow Security Council members to endorse the Arab League’s new plan to end the violence in Syria, including formation of a national unity government.

“The decisions taken in Cairo may be a game-changer, also for the Security Council,” Wittig told a small group of reporters.

Omar Idlibi, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council opposition group, said the Arab efforts do not go far enough. He and many other opposition figures demand Assad leave power and say anything less will just give the regime time to bury the revolt.

But there are significant splits in the opposition about the way forward.

Hassan Abdul-Azim, who heads the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, or NCB, said the Arab plan is an “advanced step as the Arab League has started dealing with matters more seriously.”

Abdul-Azim said the plan would put more pressure on Assad’s regime and “tells it that it’s impossible to keep matters as they are”.

Heavy criticism
Syria appeared to get a serious boost on Monday from its powerful allies in Russia. Russia’s business daily Kommersant reported that Moscow has signed a contract to sell 36 Yak-130 combat jets to Syria—a deal that, if confirmed, would openly defy international efforts to pressure Assad’s regime.

The Arab League’s observer mission has come under heavy criticism for failing to stop the violence in Syria.

On Monday, the head of the mission defended the observers’ work, saying their presence had cut down on the bloodshed. Speaking at League headquarters in Cairo, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi told reporters the observers have witnessed violence from both the Syrian security forces and armed opposition groups.

“When the delegation arrived, there was clear and obvious violence,” he said. “But after the delegation arrived, the violence started to lessen gradually.”

On Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers extended the mission for another month. The mission’s one-month mandate technically expired on Thursday.

Violence continued inside Syria on Monday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops and army defectors clashed on Monday near the western town of Qusair, close to the Lebanese border. It said five soldiers were killed and 13 were wounded.

Discrepancy
The Observatory added that 20 civilians were killed by security forces in different parts of Syria, nine of them in the north-western province of Idlib that borders Turkey.

The LCC put Monday’s death toll at 23.

It was impossible to reconcile the discrepancy.

Syria has prevented most independent media coverage and until recently has refused to issue visas for most foreign journalists. In recent weeks, the regime has begun to permit entry for journalists on trips escorted by government minders.—Sapa-AP

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