Syria observer mission given green light to continue
Arab ministers meeting in Cairo gave a widely criticised observer mission to Syria the greenlight to continue, and pledged to boost the number of monitors as violence Sunday claimed more lives.
The Arab ministerial committee on Syria "has decided to give Arab League observers the necessary time to continue their mission according to the protocol," which states that the mission is for the duration of one month.
The ministers also agreed to increase the number of observers and said they may seek "technical assistance from the United Nations."
Arab ministers were in Cairo to review the observer mission's record, amid growing calls for the bloc to cede to the United Nations the lead role in trying to end nearly 10 months of bloodshed.
The committee also called anew on Syria "to fully and immediately implement its commitments" under the Arab plan, calling on all parties "to immediately stop all forms of violence."
The head of the mission, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, is to give a report on the League on January 19 on Syria's compliance of the plan, the ministers said.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, who chaired the meeting, called on Syria to "take a historic decision."
"We hope there will be decisive steps by the Syrian government to stop the bloodshed," Sheikh Hamad told reporters after the meeting.
He said a report by the observers discussed at the meeting showed that "killing has been reduced. But even one killing (is too much)."
The Arab body stopped short of asking for UN help, but said that Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi would "continue coordinating with the United Nations Secretary General to reinforce the Arab League mission's technical aspects."
Hamad said the League hoped to raise the number of observers to 300 "within the next few days" from around 163 now deployed in Syria.
A team of Arab League monitors has been in Syria since December 26, trying to assess whether President Bashar al-Assad's regime is complying with a peace accord aimed at ending its deadly crackdown on dissent.
Critics say it has been completely outmanoeuvred by the government and has failed to make any progress towards stemming the crackdown. They have called for the mission to pull out.
The Arab League has admitted to "mistakes" but defended the mission, saying it had secured the release of prisoners and withdrawal of tanks from cities.
It said rather than pull out, it planned to send more observers.
"No plan to withdraw the observers is on the agenda of the Arab ministerial committee meeting on Syria," the bloc's deputy secretary general, Adnan Issa, said on Saturday.
"We are not talking about a pullout but reinforcing the mission."
Sunday's meeting came amid further violence in Syria, in which at least 13 civilians were killed by security forces and 11 soldiers died in clashes with deserters, human rights activists said.
Syrian security forces and pro-regime militias shot and killed 13 civilians in different parts of the country, including 10 in the central flashpoint province of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
And fighting between the Syrian army and deserters in the southern Daraa province took the lives of 11 soldiers, according to the Observatory.
Another 20 soldiers were wounded in the fighting in the village of Basr al-Harir in Daraa province, south of Damascus, while nine soldiers defected to join the rebel troops, the group added.
The Britain-based watchdog also reported heavy machinegun exchanges between the army and deserters in the Daraa town of Dael. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Cradle of the anti-Assad protests that began in March, Daraa has been one of the provinces hardest hit by the crackdown.
On Saturday, Syria held funerals for 26 victims of a suicide bombing in Damascus, promising an "iron fist" response.
The opposition pointed the finger for Friday's bomb at the regime itself, as it did after similar attacks in Damascus on December 23 killed 44 people.
The Assad regime has consistently asserted that the unrest sweeping the country is the work of armed rebels, not largely peaceful demonstrators as maintained by Western governments and human rights watchdogs.
After the Damascus bombing, the United States condemned it and again called for Assad to step down, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said "all violence is unacceptable and must stop immediately."
The Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, said the bombing "clearly bears the regime's fingerprints."
It said the UN Security Council had to address the bloodshed, which the world body estimated in December had killed more than 5,000 people since March.
The SNC said "a joint effort between the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council represents a first step toward the urgent and necessary measures to assure the protection of civilians, and to ensure that the regime does not commit additional bombings and killings."
So far veto-wielding Security Council permanent members Beijing and Moscow have blocked efforts by Western governments to secure UN action against Damascus.
On Sunday, a large Russian naval flotilla led by an aircraft carrier was docked in the Syrian port of Tartus in what state media hailed as a show of solidarity by its Cold War ally.