Sarkozy to Assad: Step down and let Syrians choose their destiny

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LANVEOC-POULMIC (France) - France's President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded Tuesday that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad step down, accusing him of overseeing sickening "massacres" against his own people.
Sarkozy told an audience of French military personnel that the Syrian people should be allowed "to freely choose their own destiny" after facing what he denounced as brutal persecution that inspires "disgust and revulsion".
UN humanitarian officials estimate that at least 5,000 Syrians have been killed in the nine months since a popular uprising erupted against Assad's regime, most of them killed by security forces.
Arab League observers arrived in Damascus on December 26 as part of a bid to negotiate an end to the violence and support political dialogue, but killings continue.
Sarkozy demanded the regime give the observers space to work, and called on the international community to "face up to its responsibilities" by imposing the "toughest sanctions" to force Damascus to grant humanitarian access.
Earlier, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had warned that France was sceptical that the Arab observer mission would be able to resolve the crisis.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, in his first remarks since the observers were deployed in Syria last week, defended the mission, saying it had secured the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of tanks from cities.
"There are still snipers and gunfire. There must be a total halt to the gunfire," Arabi however admitted to reporters in Cairo on Monday.
The issue would be raised with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, he said, "because the aim is to stop the shooting and protect civilians."
But "it is difficult to say who is firing on whom," Arabi added.
"The conditions under which this observer mission is operating should be clarified," Juppe told French television I-Tele.
He questioned whether the observers really had free access to information, but said he would await their report, expected in the coming days, adding: "But I do not consider the battle is already lost."
The mission has been mired in controversy since a first team of 50 observers arrived on December 26, with activists saying the authorities are keeping the monitors on a short leash while continuing to press a brutal crackdown on dissent.
Activists and opposition figures are also critical of the choice of a former top Sudanese military commander, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, to head the operation.
Dabi is a controversial figure because he served under Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
Arabi told reporters the "mission needs more time" but insisted it had already notched up some successes.
"One of the achievements of the mission was to secure the release of 3,484 people detained by the Syrian government in four stages. The release of another batch will be announced soon," he said.
"Tanks have pulled out from cities and neighbourhoods," Arabi added.
After weeks of stalling, Syria agreed last month to allow the deployment of observers as part of an Arab roadmap calling for the withdrawal of the military from cities and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.
On Sunday, the Arab Parliament, an advisory body of the 22-member Arab League, intensified the pressure saying the monitors should be immediately withdrawn having failed to halt the government's crackdown.
"We are seeing an increase in violence, more people are being killed including children... and all this in the presence of Arab League monitors, which has angered the Arab people," said the body's speaker, Salem al-Diqbassi.
He urged Arabi to "immediately pull out the Arab observers, considering the continued killing of innocent civilians by the Syrian regime."
In his response, the League chief said Diqbassi's comments were an "important statement."
Arab foreign ministers could meet as early as next week to review a report expected to be submitted later this week by the mission's chief and to consider Diqbassi's remarks, Arabi said.
But he stressed the League would not back down from the mission and would be sending more observers soon.
"We have 70 observers in six cities who carried out 26 missions (so far). Thirty more monitors will join them within days," Arabi said.
Despite the presence of the monitors, violence continued on the ground, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying another 11 people were killed in various parts of the country on Monday.
The United Nations estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since March.
The official SANA news agency reported on Tuesday that saboteurs attacked a gas pipeline near Homs that supplies gas to electricity stations at Zara and Zeizun.