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Sun 29 Jan 2012 07:54 AM

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Arab League suspends Syria mission as violence rages

Latest army offensives said to leave at least 12 dead as fighting flares in Damascus

Arab League suspends Syria mission as violence rages
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has blamed "foreign elements" for the uprising

The Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria
because of worsening violence, a move Damascus said was an attempt to encourage
foreign intervention as it struggles to quell a 10-month revolt against
President Bashar al-Assad.

The Arab League took the decision on Saturday days after
calling on Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity.
It will take an Arab peace plan to the UN Security Council next week.

Instability is increasing inside Syria. On Saturday, the
army launched an offensive against rebels who seized three Damascus suburbs
this week. Activists said at least 12 people had been killed and 30 injured,
mostly by anti-aircraft fire and mortar rounds. The report could not be
independently verified.

"Given the critical deterioration of the situation in
Syria and the continued use of violence ... it has been decided to immediately
stop the work of the Arab League's mission to Syria..." Secretary-General
Nabil Elaraby said in a statement.

Arab League foreign ministers are expected to discuss early
next month the possibility of withdrawing monitors completely, a League
official said.

Syria TV cited a government official as saying Syria was
surprised by the decision, which would "put pressure on [Security Council]
deliberations with the aim of calling for foreign intervention and encouraging
armed groups to increase violence."

France, however, which has been leading calls for stronger
international action
on Syria, said the Arab League decision highlighted the
need to act.

"France vigorously condemns the dramatic escalation of
violence in Syria, which has led the Arab League to suspend its observers'
mission in Syria," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Dozens of Syrian civilians have been killed in the
past days by the savage repression taken by the Syrian regime, notably by
massive military operations against opponents' neighbourhoods in several
cities. Those responsible for these barbarous acts must answer to their

The Arab League mission was sent to observe Syria's
implementation of a League peace plan, which failed to end the fighting. The
mission was further undermined when Gulf states withdrew their monitors last
week, saying the team could not stop the violence - which Assad blames on
foreign-backed militants.

In the three rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, activists said
they believed the army was trying to prevent insurgents from building a
stronghold close to the centre of government.

The Damascus insurgents were emboldened by a string of
reports of army desertions, and activists said one group of deserters had brought
with them their three tanks.

Activists said by telephone that rebels who control the
towns of Saqba, Kafr Batna and Jisreen were exchanging fire with soldiers who
were shooting back from tanks and had used anti-aircraft guns and mortars.

A video uploaded by activists, purported to be from a
rebel-held Damascus suburb, showed smoke rising from behind a mosque and heavy
gunfire erupting in the background as residents shouted "Allahu Akbar (God
is greatest)."

It was not possible to verify the video or many of the
details from activists, as media access to such locations is restricted in

The rebel FSA agreed a truce last week for government forces
to withdraw from rebel-held Zabadani, 30 minutes' drive from Damascus. It said
the army had had to pull back because of the large number of desertions from
its ranks.

Elsewhere, activists said they were still recovering bodies
from the killings of Sunni Muslims in a neighbourhood of the flashpoint city
Homs, which they blamed on pro-Assad militiamen belonging to the president's
minority Alawite sect.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the
death count had risen to 47.

The United Nations said in December that more than 5,000
people had been killed in the wave of protests. Syria says more than 2,000
security force members have been killed by militants.

On Friday, the Security Council discussed a European-Arab
draft UN Security Council resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed in Syria.
Britain and France said they hoped to put the draft resolution to a vote next

Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft
resolution in October, and has said it wants a Syrian-led political process,
not "an Arab League-imposed outcome of a political process that has not
yet taken place" or Libyan-style "regime change".