CAIRO/BEIRUT The Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria on Saturday because of worsening violence, a move Damascus said was an attempt to draw foreign intervention as it struggles to quell a 10-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
The Arab League took the decision days after calling, unsuccessfully, for Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity. It will take an Arab peace plan to the U.N. Security Council next week.
The rising violence in Syria took a dramatic turn this week when rebels seized three Damascus suburbs. On Saturday the army launched an offensive against them, leading to intense fighting.
"Given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence ... it has been decided to immediately stop the work of the Arab League's mission to Syria pending presention of the issue to the league's council," Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement.
Arab League foreign ministers are expected to discuss early next month the possibility of withdrawing monitors completely, a League official said, but added that the secretary general could pull monitors out at any time if necessary.
"Syria regrets and is surprised at the Arab decision to stop the work of its monitoring mission," state channel Syria TV cited a government official as saying.
"This will have a negative impact and put pressure on (Security Council) deliberations with the aim of calling for foreign intervention and encouraging armed groups to increase violence," the official added.
The Arab League mission was sent to observe Syria's implementation of a League peace plan, but the level of violence remained high and there was no sign of a let-up in the crackdown on unrest by Assad's forces.
The mission's mandate was extended for a second month, but critics said the team's presence had not lessened the fighting, and the mission was further undermined when Gulf states withdrew their monitors last week, saying the team could not stop the violence.
Diplomatic pressure on Assad to step down or to carry out the peace plan has been weakened by his continuing support from Russia and regional power Iran. Assad himself blames the unrest on foreign-backed militants.
FIGHTING, DEFECTIONS NEAR CAPITAL
There was fighting outside three rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Saturday, activists said, adding they believed the army was trying to prevent the insurgents from building a stronghold in an area so close to the centre of government.
Eight residents were killed and dozens wounded and 11 government troops killed in the clashes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that security forces shot dead four civilians and an army deserter elsewhere in the country.
The Damascus insurgents were emboldened by a string of reports of army desertions, and activists said one group of deserters had brought with them their three tanks.
A spokesman for the rebel forces, known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said he did not have a complete tally but estimated that over 100 soldiers had deserted in the area on Saturday.
Elsewhere, activists said they were still recovering bodies from a sectarian "massacre" of Sunni Muslims in a neighbourhood of the flashpoint city Homs, which they blamed on pro-Assad militiamen belonging to the president's minority Alawite sect.
The Syrian Observatory, which said the death count had risen to 47, said snipers and checkpoints had made it difficult for activists to enter the district and find all the bodies.
Activists told Reuters by telephone that rebels who control the towns of Saqba, Kafr Batna and Jisreen were exchanging fire with soldiers who were shooting back from tanks and had used anti-aircraft guns and mortars.
A video uploaded by activists, purported to be from a rebel-held Damascus suburb, showed smoke rising from behind a mosque and heavy gunfire erupting in the background as residents shouted "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)."
It was not possible to verify the video or many of the details from activists, as media access to such locations is restricted in Syria.
The rebel FSA agreed a truce last week for government forces to withdraw from rebel-held Zabadani, 30 minutes' drive from Damascus. It said the army had had to pull back because of the large number of desertions from its ranks.
What began last March as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule has grown more violent as protesters began fighting back against the security forces' crackdown and were joined by rising numbers of army deserters.
The United Nations said in December that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the wave of protests. Syria says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed by militants.
The state news agency SANA said "terrorist groups" killed seven soldiers, including an officer, in the Damascus suburbs on Saturday. SANA reported the burial of 28 members of the security forces killed in different parts of the country, and showed pictures of bloodied corpses and a funeral procession led by soldiers carrying wreaths.
U.N. RESOLUTION TALKS
On Friday, the Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed in Syria. Britain and France said they hoped to put the draft resolution to a vote next week.
The Arab League's deputy secretary general said the group was also in talks with Russia ahead of the Security Council meeting.
Russian officials have not commented on their talks with the Arab League, but Moscow's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin previously said Russia found the League plan unacceptable but was willing to "engage."
Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October and has since promoted its own draft. Churkin said Moscow wanted a Syrian-led political process, not "an Arab League-imposed outcome of a political process that has not yet taken place" or Libyan-style "regime change.
The prominent opposition Syrian National Council said it was joining the Arab League at its Security Council meeting to request "protection." The SNC has previously called for international forces to implement a no-fly zone in Syria.
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Edmund Blair in Cairo, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; editing by Tim Pearce)