x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Abdullah warns over Syria attacks on monitors

UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs warns of violent attacks on Arab League observers by 'people not from opposition' as the UAE sends another 12 monitors to Syria.

ABU DHABI // The role of the Arab League observer mission in Syria is becoming more difficult each day, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, said yesterday.

The monitors have been violently attacked three times, most recently on Monday - and the attackers were not opposition protesters, Sheikh Abdullah said.

"I don't want to point accusations at anyone, but the observers were attacked by people who are not from the Syrian opposition," he said.

"I think those signs are not positive. The Arab League is supposed to speak about these attacks as those observers are nationals of member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. I leave the topic to the Arab League secretary general.

"There is no doubt that the mission of the monitors is becoming more difficult by the day for various reasons, because we see that the killing has not stopped and the Syrian side has not honoured its commitments about the movement of the observers."

The Arab League secretary general Nabil Al Arabi said pro-regime groups appeared to have been involved in the attacks near the port city of Latakia and in Deir Ezzor, in which some observers were slightly injured, and that the authorities were "totally responsible" for protecting the teams.

The first 50 observers arrived in Damascus on December 26 to monitor compliance with an Arab League peace deal in which the regime of Bashar Al Assad agreed to halt the bloody repression of protests and withdraw its forces from the streets. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since the uprising began almost a year ago.

The mission now comprises about 140 monitors. The UAE sent 12 more to Syria last weekend. Until then the country's only representative had been Mohammed Salim Al Kaabi, the deputy chairman of the Emirates Human Rights Association.

Mr Al Kaabi is beginning his third week in Syria, and is based in the south-western city of Deraa, near the border with Jordan. At the beginning of next month he will be replaced by the association's secretary general, Mohammed Hussein Al Hammadi, when the next wave of Arab League observers arrives.

"It is dangerous, no doubt about it," Mr Al Hammadi said yesterday. "I check up on my colleague every single day, to make sure everything is OK and if he needs us to send him anything."

On Monday evening, after a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, the Arab League said it had "decided to give observers the necessary time to continue their mission according to protocol".

Sheikh Abdullah was speaking at a news conference in the capital with the Japanese foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba. The two discussed regional unrest and specific troublespots such as the Palestinian issue, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran.

Sheikh Abdullah said freedom of navigation in international waters was a “pressing issue”. “We have heard varying statements from Iran … about attempts to close the Strait of Hormuz,” he said.

“It is not to the benefit of the GCC or Iran or the international community or the stability of energy prices to block any strait, especially the Strait of Hormuz,” Sheikh Abdullah said.

“Energy security is an international responsibility, including the world’s great powers and the  oil-importing countries, including Japan.”

Mr Gemba said Iran should not threaten the safety of the strait and should be careful with its movements.

“The situation in Iran worries Japan strongly, especially with the revolutions lately. And currently we are carrying out additional procedures for sanctions and we are thinking of making the responses more effective,” he said.

“Therefore, we should continue dialogue with Iran in a tenacious manner. Specifically on the situation of the Hormuz Strait, Japan strongly urges Iran to refrain from expressing provocative words and taking provocative action.”

The minister said Japan was observing the situation in Iran and the Middle East to make a prudent decision if it had to reduce its oil imports from Iran.

The two ministers agreed that Japanese companies would be given priority by the UAE for supplies, and Mr Gemba said Japan hoped the UAE would provide them with as much oil as they needed.

The two ministers also discussed piracy, nuclear proliferation, sustainable energy, bilateral trade including Japanese food exports to the UAE, and simplifying visa arrangements between the two countries.

“It was a rich agenda, and proof of the strong relations between the UAE and Japan,” Sheikh Abdullah said.