Arab League to discuss fate of Syria mission

Mounting criticism of monitors' response as French President calls for Assad to stand down

The Arab League is to convene an emergency meeting in Cairo this weekend to discuss the fate of its observer mission to Syria, amid mounting criticism of the international monitors' reluctance to catalogue abuses by the Assad regime against civilian protesters.

The 22-member body is responding to claims that the mission has provided cover for continuing human rights abuses by the regime as President Bashar al-Assad seeks to crush a 10-month-long uprising against his rule.

In a statement of frustration with the monitors' lack of progress, the commander of Syria's armed rebels yesterday threatened to step up attacks on President Assad's forces. "If we feel they (the monitors) are still not serious in a few days, we will take a decision which will surprise the regime and the whole world," the head of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, said. His comments came as an explosion struck a gas pipeline in Homs province in an attack the government blamed on terrorists, the state-run news agency said.

If the mission is withdrawn, it will be an embarrassment for the League, which was widely praised for its uncharacteristically robust response to the Syrian regime's abuses late last year when it suspended Damascus from the pan-Arab body and imposed sanctions.

As Arab powers prepared to meet, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, issued the harshest criticism of the Syrian strongman yet by a Western leader, accusing Mr Assad of "barbarous repression" against his people.

"The massacres being committed by the Syrian regime rightly arouse disgust and revolt in the Arab world, in France, in Europe and everywhere in the world," Mr Sarkozy said during an address at a navy air base. "The Syrian President must leave power."

The White House piled further pressure on the government last night, when Jay Carney, a spokesman, said it was "past the time for the Security Council to act". The UN has estimated that more than 5,000 people have been killed since a popular uprising erupted in March; Damascus says that 2,000 of those are members of the security forces, and has portrayed the uprising as a foreign-backed insurrection by "terrorist" gangs.

After the League's steering committee meets to decide the future of the mission it will make a non-binding recommendation to the body. The final decision could determine whether Syria is ultimately referred to the UN Security Council.

Since arriving in Syria, the observer mission, which numbers fewer than 100, has been accused by opposition groups of presenting an overly positive image of the situation. The Sudanese mission head, General Mustafa al-Dabi, has been singled out for criticism after he described a visit to Homs, one of the cities that has suffered the worst bloodshed, as reassuring.

The opposition claims the observers have been tightly controlled by the regime and exposed only to carefully staged events. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, says nearly 400 people have died in the violence since 21 December.

The Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi conceded this week that killings had continued despite observers' presence, but said it had convinced the regime to pull back its tanks from the cities and release some political prisoners.

Call for Europe to toughen stance on Iran

France yesterday called on its European partners to match tough US financial and oil sanctions on Iran by the end of the month.

As tensions continued to rise in the Gulf, the French foreign minister, Alan Juppé, said there could no longer be any doubt that Tehran was "perfecting" a nuclear arms capability. "Without closing the door to negotiation and dialogue, France therefore believes the time is right for tougher sanctions," Mr Juppé said in an interview with a French television channel.

His comments come after the United States passed a law, effective in six months time, which imposes sanctions on all international financial institutions that deal with Iran's central bank. Since the bank is Tehran's main clearinghouse for oil exports, this could discourage countries from buying Iran's main export.  Britain has ordered all its financial institutions to stop doing business with their Iranian counterparts, including the central bank.

In retaliation, Tehran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz – the narrow channel at the mouth of the Gulf that is a key passageway for world oil supplies. On Monday, the Iranian navy tested two missiles in the Gulf, in an apparent attempt to underline the seriousness of its threat.

The French foreign minister said yesterday that a financial asset and oil embargo had originally been proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy last year. Now that the US Congress and President Barack Obama had passed "tough" sanctions into law, "we want the Europeans to show their determination by passing equivalent measures by 30 January," Mr Juppé said.

Tehran insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful and intended to meet a growing domestic demand for electricity. These assurances were rejected in November in the latest of a series of reports by the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency said that Iran had carried out tests which could only be related to the "development of a nuclear device". On the weekend, Tehran said it had produced its first nuclear fuel rods in a technological feat that few had thought it capable of.

The US security council has already approved four rounds of international sanctions against Iran but Russia and China have made it clear that they would block tougher action. The US, Britain and Canada – soon probably to be joined by the whole of the EU - have therefore announced sanctions of their own.

Tehran said last week that it might shut the Strait of Hormuz if the sanctions go ahead. On Monday, Iranian state television said that the country had no immediate plans to shut the channel but had carried out "mock" exercises. "No order has been given for the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. But we are prepared for various scenarios," the state television quoted

a senior official as saying. "We have successfully test-fired long-range shore-to-sea and surface-to-surface missiles, called Qader (Capable) and Nour (Light) today," Deputy Navy Commander Mahmoud Mousavi said.

John Lichfield