BEIRUT (Reuters) - Arab League peace monitors will stay in Syria to check on the government’s compliance with a promise to end 10 months of violence against pro-democracy protesters, Arab government sources said on Thursday, despite criticism from Qatar’s prime minister that they had made “mistakes”.
Syria, keen to show it is respecting an Arab League peace accord, said it had released a further 552 people detained during the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad “whose hands were not stained with blood”.
The team of monitors arrived in Syria last week to verify whether the government was implementing the agreement to scale back its military presence in cities and free thousands of prisoners detained since the uprising last March
The League’s special committee on Syria is due to meet in Egypt on Sunday to debate the initial findings of the mission, which has been criticized by Syrian activists who question its ability to assess the violence on the ground.
The activists said the teams did not have enough access and were escorted by Syrian authorities, who were manipulating them and hiding prisoners in military facilities.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York, said this was the first such experience.
“I said we must evaluate the types of mistakes it made and without a shadow of a doubt I see mistakes, even though we went in to observe, not to stop the violence,” he said.
Sheikh Hamad, who chairs the Arab League committee on Syria, did not elaborate on the mistakes but said he was seeking technical help from the United Nations.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York that Sheikh Hamad and Ban discussed “practical measures how the United Nations could assist this observer mission.”
“The form that could take is that, under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, there would be training of (Arab League) observers,” he said. “This would be a small-scale undertaking to train observers.”
No comment was immediately available from Qatari officials on Sheikh Hamad’s remarks, which were reported by KUNA, the Kuwaiti state news agency.
An Arab government representative told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the monitors could not be withdrawn whatever the contents of the initial report.
Syria said it provided the monitors with all the facilities they needed.
“What we are looking for is objectivity and professionalism,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told Lebanese Manar television.
State news agency SANA said some 4,000 detainees had been released since November.
Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby said on Monday the mission had secured the release of about 3,500 prisoners. Campaign group Avaaz said on Thursday 37,000 people detained since March were still being held.
Sheikh Hamad said the League would soon hear the monitors’ findings and assess the mission’s viability: “We are going to evaluate all sides of the situation and we will look at the possibility of the delegation continuing or not and how we can carry on this mission, but we need to listen to the reports of those who were on the ground first”.
On the likelihood of Syria being referred to the United Nations Security Council, Sheikh Hamad said: “We always try to create a solution to this crisis within the Arab League, but that depends on the Syrian government and the extent of its clarity with us in producing a solution to the crisis.”
If the Arab monitors were pulled out it could open the door for foreign intervention, a scenario many Arab countries want to avoid. Syria is a major player in the region and is strongly supported by Iran and militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
The League has suspended Syria’s membership, citing Assad’s failure to adhere to its plan to stop a crackdown which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people since March.
The committee comprises the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan, Qatar, Oman and Algeria, but a source in the League said other countries were invited to join on Sunday and they could call for an urgent meeting of all Arab ministers the same day.
Some officials at the League said countries such as Sudan, Jordan, Egypt and Algeria were wary of ending the mission early, fearing that declaring it a failure might provoke Western military intervention in Syria.
“They are afraid this will become a pattern and could happen later to their own countries,” said a League official who asked not to be identified.
Another Arab government representative said the committee was likely to discuss possible measures to help the monitors, such as providing them with vehicles so they can travel around the country without the assistance of Syrian authorities.
He said they would not discuss changing the head of the monitoring mission, a Sudanese general whose selection was criticized by international human rights groups because of his own country’s human rights record.
Additional reporting by Ayman Samir, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Isabel Coles in Dubai and Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Paul Simao