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Arab League halts Syrian mission as clashes flare

Assad regime criticised for latest spate of bloodshed that killed 80

The Arab League halted its observer mission to Syria yesterday, sharply criticising the regime of President Bashar al-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 Mr Assad seeks to crush protests demanding an end to his rule.

But the initiatives continue to face two major obstacles: Damascus's rejection of an Arab peace plan that 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 yesterday. At least nine were reported killed in the clashes and other violence. The deaths come after two days of bloody turmoil killed at least 74 people, including small children.

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 last Tuesday, asking the UN Security Council to intervene.

League secretary-general Nabil Elaraby said that after discussions with Arab foreign ministers, the organisation 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.

He said the victims of the violence have been "innocent citizens" in an implicit rejection of Syria's claims that it is fighting "terrorists".

Mr Elaraby's deputy, Ahmed Ben Heli, told reporters that the around 100 observers would remain in Damascus while their mission was "reevaluated".

Mr Elaraby and the prime minister of Qatar were set to leave for New York today 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 Mr Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.

Syria has rejected the proposal, saying it violates its sovereignty.

The UN Security Council began closed-door negotiations last Friday on a new Arab-European draft resolution aimed at resolving the crisis, but Russia's envoy said he could not back the current language as it stands.

Any resolution faces strong opposition from China and Russia, and both nations have veto power. Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters that the text introduced by new Arab Security Council member Morocco has "red lines" for Moscow, but he's willing to "engage" with the resolution's sponsors.

Mr Churkin said those lines included any indication of sanctions, including an arms embargo.

The Arab League chief Mr Elaraby has been holding talks with Russia's foreign minister over the crisis ahead of the visit to the UN, Mr Ben Heli said.

Sunday Independent