Arab ministers to discuss "toothless" Syria mission
CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab League foreign ministers meet on Sunday to discuss whether to ask the U.N. to help their mission in Syria, which has failed to end a 10-month-old crackdown on unrest that has killed thousands.
Qatar proposes inviting U.N. technicians and human rights experts to help Arab monitors judge whether Syria is honouring its pledge to stop its repression, Arab League sources said. One said it might ask that U.N. staff helping the mission be Arabs.
The ministers will also discuss ways the mission might operate more independently of Syrian authorities.
There has been no slackening of violence since monitors began work in Syria on December 26, with scores reported killed.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said Syria was not implementing the terms of the Arab League peace plan it agreed, and monitors could not stay in Syria to "waste time." The Syrian army had not withdrawn from cities and there had been no end to the killing, he said.
Arab League sources said ministers were likely to reaffirm support for the monitors, resisting calls to end what Syrian pro-democracy campaigners say is a toothless mission that buys more time for President Bashar al-Assad to suppress opponents.
Syria says it is providing the monitors with all they need and has urged them to show "objectivity and professionalism."
Speaking on the eve of the meeting, the head of the monitoring operations room at the League's headquarters in Cairo, Adnan al-Khudeir, said the withdrawal of the monitors was not on the agenda and they were continuing their work according to protocols agreed with the Syrian government.
He said in a statement the delegation could only be withdrawn by a decision of Arab League foreign ministers, who had initially agreed the mission's parameters.
Ten Jordanian monitors had arrived in Damascus on Saturday, Khudeir said, bringing to 153 the number of monitors involved.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the uprising against Assad. The Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition force composed mainly of army deserters, has joined the revolt. The Syrian government says "terrorists" have killed 2,000 members of the security forces during the uprising.
The 22-member Arab League suspended Syria in November after months of silence over the crackdown. But some Arab leaders are uncomfortable about targeting one of their peers given their own restive populations, diplomats say.
Western powers that want Assad to step down to allow for democratic reforms have welcomed the League's toughened stance. Arab states oppose any foreign military intervention like that which helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Assad's opponents say Syrian authorities have systematically deceived the monitors, for instance by hiding prisoners in military facilities.
Syria bars most independent journalists from the country, making first-hand reporting impossible, but a BBC Arabic service reporter was allowed to accompany three Arab monitors to a town on the outskirts of Damascus.
It was the first time foreign media were known to have been able to cover the activities of the monitors directly, although media access was a condition stipulated by the Arab League.
The BBC said it had been able to film, unhindered by the security forces.
Protesters and residents told the observers, all Algerian diplomats, of harsh treatment at the hands of the security forces. The observers then witnessed a demonstration in which the crowd demanded Assad's execution, the BBC said.
In Damascus, crowds waving Syrian flags and pictures of Assad gathered on Saturday to bury 26 people whom the authorities said were killed by a suicide bomber.
The opposition Syrian National Council has accused the government of staging Friday's explosion to try to bolster its contention that it is fighting foreign-backed "terrorists," not a popular pro-democracy movement.
A cortege of ambulances, lights flashing, bore the flag-draped coffins of victims to a Damascus mosque after driving through streets lined with mourners, state television showed.
Crowds chanted "The people want Bashar al-Assad!" and "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!"
Security forces trying to crush anti-Assad protests killed four civilians in Homs on Saturday, and three people died in Harasta from wounds inflicted on Friday, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
It also said security forces had killed 20 civilians and three army defectors on Friday.
A Syrian army colonel said in a statement broadcast by Al Jazeera he had defected in protest against the crackdown on protests. He was flanked in video footage by 13 men in uniform, and the station said up to 50 defected with him in Hama.
Syria's Addounia television said military ships from Russia, an ally of Assad which has resisted escalating Western pressure on Damascus, docked in the port of Tartus on Saturday.
A Russian official was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency as saying a destroyer and a frigate would spend several days at Russia's naval maintenance and supply facility in the port.
(Writing by Andrew Roche)
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