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Violence in Syria lingers as Arab League mission ends

Arab League foreign ministers will meet on Sunday and consider extending the league's observer mission, officials say, as Syrian forces retreat from a rebel-held town.

People in Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, rally against the Syrian regime on Tuesday. The army withdrew from the town yesterday.
People in Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, rally against the Syrian regime on Tuesday. The army withdrew from the town yesterday.

BEIRUT // Syrian forces retreated from a rebel-held town yesterday, but violence continued elsewhere as Arab peace monitors in Syria completed their month-long assignment.

Arab League foreign ministers will meet on Sunday and consider extending the league's observer mission, officials said yesterday.

Adnan Al Khudeir, head of the Cairo operations room that handles reports by the monitors, told The Associated Press that observers will remain in Syria until a decision is made Sunday.

Another Arab League official said the mission could be extended for another month.

"There is a conviction even among Syria opponents that the extension is better than withdrawal," the official said.

Meanwhile, Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles pulled out of the town of Zabadani after days of clashes between troops and rebel soldiers.

"There is a cautious calm, but fear of another major assault being prepared against Zabadani," Fares Mohammad, an opposition activist, told The Associated Press by telephone. Mr Mohammed said about 100 army defectors were "protecting" the town west of Damascus.

Elsewhere, defectors reportedly killed a military security brigadier, Adel Mustafa. The soldiers who had defected had refused his orders to shoot at civilians in the Bab Qibli area of Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists. The officer had previously overseen many killings and arrests, activists said.

More than 700 people are believed to have been killed since the monitors arrived to Syria on December 26. They were in the country to oversee compliance with an Arab peace plan to end the bloodshed - signed by the Syrian government - that called for troops to be pulled off the streets, political prisoners freed and talks to begin with opposition groups.

The mission has been criticised and accused of being exploited by authorities who have continued to use force against protesters. Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said on Wednesday that the observers had "not succeeded" in getting the Syrian government to meet its obligations.

Avaaz, a global campaigning organisation, said yesterday that its researchers had recorded 746 civilians killed in the past month. These figures could not be independently verified.

The group condemned what it called Syria's "complete failure" to comply with the Arab League plan and urged the United Nations Security Council to impose punitive measures against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

"Arab League observers have now observed Assad's brutality first hand," Ricken Patel, the executive director of Avaaz, said in a statement. "It's time for the Arab League to push for help from the UN Security Council to stop the horror-show in Syria."

There are growing calls for the Security Council to step in, but the UN body is split between those calling for tougher action and other countries, including Russia and China, who have said they are opposed to sanctions. The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said his country would block any attempts to obtain UN support for military intervention in Syria.

Qatar has proposed sending Arab troops to Syria to stop the violence, a suggestion that was categorically rejected by Damascus.

The Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian opposition group that documents the uprising and organises events on the ground, said at least 19 people were killed yesterday. These numbers also could not be independently confirmed.

The Syrian state news agency yesterday reported that a high-ranking member of the army and two soldiers were shot by "armed terrorist groups" in Hama. The government has said that 2,000 members of its security forces have been killed by foreign-backed terrorist groups since March.

The UN estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the 10 months since protests against the Syrian regime spread to cities and towns across the country.

Now, it seems that an armed insurgency is gaining strength, with some warning of the possibility of a civil war.

The head of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Shaqfa, said his group backed peaceful protests and said armed rebels should restrict their operations to defending demonstrations.

Mr Shaqfa also called for a no-fly zone over Syria and for the international community to "fully isolate" the Syrian regime.

"The Syrian people are determined. Nobody will go back to their homes unless Bashar [Al Assad] leaves," he told Reuters on Wednesday. "There is a determination and God willing the people will reach this goal."

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reports by Reuters and The Associated Press