x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Arab League: Syrian troops pull out of cities

Army snipers are still a threat, says head of Arab League.

BEIRUT // Syria's military has withdrawn from cities since peace monitors arrived but army snipers remain a threat, the Arab League's secretary-general said yesterday.

Nabil Elaraby said the much-criticised monitoring effort had already made a difference. The Arab Parliament, a unit of the league, says the monitors should pull out because the killing has not stopped.

"The accomplishments of the delegation include the withdrawal of all military, such as tanks, from cities and residential areas, as well as the access of food items to Syrian populations and the retrieval of corpses," Mr Elaraby said in Cairo.

Armed rebels captured dozens of members of the security forces by seizing two military checkpoints yesterday, the opposition said.

They said army deserters also clashed with security forces at a third checkpoint, killing and wounding an unspecified number of troops loyal to the president, Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Al Assad is struggling to defeat a popular uprising and avoid becoming the latest leader to be toppled by Arab Spring revolutions, after the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

After almost 10 months of violence in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed, the Arab League monitoring mission has spent the past week assessing Mr Al Assad's compliance with a peace plan it brokered.

"We call upon the Syrian government to fully commit to what it promised," Mr Elaraby said.

The Arab League plan calls for Mr Al Assad to withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, release detainees and talk to the opposition.

Mr Elaraby said the monitors had achieved the release of 3,484 prisoners and succeeded in getting food supplies into Homs, one of the centres of the violence.

"Give the monitoring mission the chance to prove its presence on the ground," he said.

But many Syrian opposition activists are sceptical that the observer mission can put real pressure on Mr Al Assad to halt the violence.

The reported attacks on military checkpoints came three days after the anti-government Free Syrian Army said it had ordered its fighters to stop offensive operations pending a meeting with the Arab League delegates.

Rami Abdelrahman, director of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said yesterday's operation took place in the northern province of Idlib.

Separately, the Observatory said two people were killed by gunfire in Homs yesterday, and the bodies of another two were handed over to their families. Security forces killed a farmer in Douma, on the north-eastern edge of Damascus, as they carried out raids searching for suspects wanted by authorities, it said.

In Damascus, Kinan Shami, a member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union activists group, said people were taking huge risks by gathering in cities where Arab League monitors were expected, in the hope of talking to them.

"The people are trying to show the monitors the repression, and are risking their lives to meet them because everywhere they go the monitors are surrounded by security," Mr Shami said.

"Other than getting arrested and beaten or killed, they could easily face endless counts of treason and communicating with foreign powers."

But Issam Ishak, a high-level member of the main opposition Syrian National Council, said the monitors must be given a chance.

"Their presence is helping further erode the fear factor and is encouraging the expansion of the protests," he said.

* Bloomberg and Reuters