Arab League calls urgent meeting on Syria monitors

The Arab League called Tuesday for an emergency meeting to discuss whether to withdraw the group`s monitors from Syria.

Beirut: The Arab League called Tuesday for an emergency meeting to discuss whether to withdraw the group`s monitors from Syria, where security forces are still killing protesters despite the observers` presence, an Arab official said.

The meeting will take place Saturday in Cairo, where the Arab League is based.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the regime must not be allowed to interfere with the observers on the ground.

"The conditions in which this observer mission is taking place need to be clarified,`` he told French television I-Tele. ``Does it really have completely free access to information? We await the report that it will submit in the coming days to see more clearly.``

Activists reported more bloodshed Tuesday. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces shot dead three people in the restive city of Homs. The LCC had a higher toll, saying security forces killed four people in Homs, one in the Damascus suburb of Kfar Batna and one in the central province of Hama.

The Arab League`s deputy secretary-general, Ahmed bin Heli, said the meeting on Saturday will look into the first report by the head of the monitoring mission, which began Dec. 27.

Another official said that the ministerial meeting will discuss whether to pull out the monitors because of the ongoing violence in Syria. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The Saturday meeting will not make a final decision, but will send its recommendations to another, high-level ministerial meeting. No date was set for that meeting.

There are about 100 Arab League monitors in Syria, dispatched to verify the regime`s compliance with an Arab League plan to stop its crackdown on a 9-month-old uprising. Syria agreed to the plan on Dec. 19.

But activists say hundreds have been slain in the week since the observers started work.

On Monday, League chief Nabil Elaraby acknowledged ongoing bloodshed but insisted the observer mission has yielded important concessions from the Damascus regime, such as the withdrawal of heavy weapons from cities.

Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the mission, saying it is simply giving President Bashar Assad cover for his crackdown. The Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, says the observer mission is witnessing mainly regime-staged events, and they move about the country only with the full knowledge of the government.

The UN`s last estimate, given several weeks ago, estimated that more than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in mid-March. But since that report, activists say hundreds more have been killed.

Just in the one week since the observers started their work in Syria on Dec. 27, activists have reported hundreds slain. The LCC put the death toll at more than 390 people since Dec. 21.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists from the country and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm claims from either side.

"Yes, there is still shooting and yes there are still snipers,`` Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo on Monday. "Yes, killings continue. The objective is for us to wake up in the morning and hear that no one is killed. The mission`s philosophy is to protect civilians, so if one is killed, then our mission is incomplete.``

"There must be a complete cease-fire,`` Elaraby said.

Elaraby stressed the achievements of the Arab League mission, saying Syria`s government has pulled tanks and artillery from cities and residential neighborhoods and freed some 3,500 prisoners. He said food supplies have reached residents and the bodies of dead protesters have been recovered.

The Arab League plan requires Assad`s regime remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners.

While most of the violence reported early in the uprising involved Syrian forces firing on unarmed protesters, there are now more frequent armed clashes between military defectors and security forces. The increasing militarization of the conflict has raised fears the country is sliding toward civil war.

Also Tuesday, an explosion struck a gas pipeline in central Syria in an attack the government blamed on terrorists, the state-run news agency said. There were no casualties. The blast happened near the town Rastan in the restive Homs province, SANA reported. The pipeline feeds two power stations.

There have been several pipeline attacks since the Syrian uprising began in mid-March, but it is not clear who is behind them at a time when violence across the country spirals out of control, unearthing long-standing grievances and resentments.

The government blames saboteurs and terrorists for the blasts.

But the opposition accuses the regime of playing on fears of religious extremism and terrorism to rally support behind Assad, who has portrayed himself as the only force that can stabilize the country.

Bureau Report

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