The Arab League halted its observer mission to Syria on Saturday, sharply criticizing the regime of President Bashar Assad for escalating violence in recent days that has killed at least 80 people across the country.
The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence that according to the United Nations has killed at least 5,400 people as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule.
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But the initiatives continue to face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab peace plan which it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its UN Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.
Syrian government forces clashed with anti-regime army defectors across the country on Saturday. At least nine were reported killed in the clashes and other violence. The new deaths come after two days of bloody turmoil killed at least 74 people, including small children.
Syrians demonstrating against Assad (Photo: Reuters)
The month-old Arab observer mission in Syria had come under widespread criticism for failing to bring a halt to the regime's crackdown. Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia pulled out of the mission Tuesday, asking the UN Security Council to intervene.
League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement that after discussions with Arab foreign ministers, the organization decided to halt the observers' work immediately because of the increasing violence, until the League's council can meet to decide the mission's fate.
He blamed Damascus for the spike in bloodshed, saying the regime has "resorted to escalating the military option in complete violation of (its) commitments" to end the crackdown, Elaraby said. He said the victims of the violence have been "innocent citizens," in an implicit rejection of Syria's claims that it is fighting "terrorists."
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Elaraby's deputy, Ahmed Ben Heli, told reporters that the around 100 observers will remain in Damascus while their mission is "reevaluated."
Ben Heli suggested the observers could resume their work later. Asked if the mission would be withdrawn, he said the halt was "forced by events" and aimed to ensure the observers' safety, but he spoke of a possible "new map" of places where the teams would visit, and said the mission would wait to see what new personnel and logistical help the League would give it.
Elaraby and the prime minister of Qatar were set to leave for New York on Sunday to seek UN support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plans calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.
Syria has rejected the proposal, saying it violates its sovereignty.
In the bloodiest incident reported on Saturday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said "terrorists" ambushed a bus carrying army officers near the tense Damascus suburb of Douma, killing seven of them.
Although Damascus has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its suburbs have witnessed intense anti-regime protests and army defectors have become more visible and active in the past few months.
Syria's state-run media blamed anti-government "terrorists" for the attack, saying the fire was extinguished four hours later.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report