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Arab League monitor walks out on Syria mission

Anwar Malek, an Algerian, said the monitoring mission was not able to operate independently and had been "fooled".

Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, waves to supporters during a rare public appearance in Damascus yesterday.
Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, waves to supporters during a rare public appearance in Damascus yesterday.

BEIRUT // A member of the Arab League's observer team in Syria has quit, called the mission a farce and accused the Syrian regime of committing war crimes.

Anwar Malek, an Algerian, said the monitoring mission was not able to operate independently and had been "fooled".

"They didn't withdraw their tanks from the streets, they just hid them and then redeployed them after we'd left," said Mr Malek, still wearing the orange vest of a league monitor as he spoke to Al Jazeera TV news.

"What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people." Mr Malek said the head of the Arab League mission, the Sudanese general Mohammed Al Dabi, wanted to "steer a middle course in order not to anger the authorities or any other side".

The presence of about 165 observers was supposed to curb the bloodshed, but instead it seems to have increased. About 400 people have been killed since the first monitors arrived on December 26, a closed United Nations Security Council meeting heard on Tuesday.

Yesterday a French television journalist was killed and a Dutch journalist was injured in an explosion in Homs.

After his defiant televised speech on Tuesday the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad addressed a pro-regime rally yesterday in Damascus. "I belong to this street," he told cheering crowds in the Umayyed Square. "We will make this phase the end for them [foreign conspirators] and their plans. We are going to win without any doubt."

Mr Al Assad's surprise public appearance, along with his wife and two children, came a day after his first speech in six months, in which he pledged to use an "iron fist" against what he described as a foreign-backed terrorist plot.

The UN estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March last year. Thirty-eight people, including three children, died on Tuesday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian opposition group that documents the uprising and plans events on the ground.

The Syrian government says foreign-backed extremist groups have killed about 2,000 members of the security forces in the past 10 months.

The Arab League mission was sent to monitor Syria's compliance with an Arab plan to end the violence, to which Mr Al Assad's government agreed on December 19. It calls for the withdrawal of military forces from cities and towns, the start of talks with opposition leaders and the release of thousands of political prisoners.

But Mr Malek backed claims by oppositions activists that little has changed. "The snipers are everywhere shooting at civilians, people are being kidnapped, prisoners are being tortured and no one has been released," he said. Groups of men shown on state television were not released prisoners but people "randomly grabbed off the streets".

The Arab League observers have come under attack from both pro-regime and opposition supporters, accused of unprofessional conduct and of acting as a cover while the Syrian regime has continued to crack down on the opposition.

Mr Malek also accused some of the League's observers of maintaining "good relations" with authorities and turning a blind eye to the violence they witnessed.

"The regime has gained a lot of time and it has helped it to implement its plan. They wanted to use this mission and they've sent spies and intelligence officers along with our teams to act as drivers and minders to get our information, and as soon as we left an area they attacked people," he said.

An official at the Arab League, which suspended Syria in November for failing to end the bloodshed, dismissed Mr Malek’s accusations, saying they were all unfounded because he was bedridden and was never in the field

“He was ill and bedridden at his Syria hotel. So how could he make those claims?” said the unnamed official.

The observer mission's next report is due to be presented to the 22-member organisation on January 19.

Turkey's foreign minister said yesterday attacks on the observers were raising doubts about the sustainability of the mission. Two Kuwaiti members of the Arab League team were injured in an attack on Monday by what the Gulf state said were unidentified protesters.

As international pressure on the regime intensifies, Israel's military chief said on Tuesday that the army was readying for a possible influx of refugees from Syria into the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reports from Reuters and Agence-France Presse