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Middle East

Arab League under fire over Syrian mission


The Arab League's credibility was in jeopardy last night as opposition figures and a senior UN official condemned the bloc's mission to Syria, while Saudi Arabia announced it was withdrawing its monitors from the country, despite the League officially extending its mandate.

Foreign ministers from the 22 member states met in Cairo yesterday and voted to extend the Syria operation for four more weeks, frustrating activists who had been hoping Arab officials would pass the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

They did, however, call for President Bashar al-Assad to ask his deputy to open negotiations with opponents in order to form a unity government within two months, before early parliamentary and presidential elections. Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, compared the plan to the deal that saw Yemen's President Saleh step down last year, saying: "We ask that the Syrian regime leave and hand over power."

Yet it remained unclear how the League planned to enforce the demands, leaving opponents dissatisfied. "The Syrian street is demanding the League takes its file to the Security Council," said Adib Shishakly, grandson of a former Syrian president and leading member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "All options should be on the table. Whether it is through a no-fly zone or a safe area, we want to leave it up to the Security Council to decide what is the best way for the international community to protect civilians."

The mission received a further blow with the announcement that Saudi Arabia was withdrawing from the process. "My country will withdraw its monitors because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab resolution plan," Prince Saud al-Faisal told Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

Since its launch in December, when Assad agreed to admit 165 monitors as part of an Arab peace initiative, activists and opposition figures have listed a catalogue of grievances, ranging from inept observers to sabotage by the regime.

In one instance, the Arab League HQ in Cairo was reportedly sent information about mass graves near Homs, but observers failed to visit the areas. There were also reports that Syrian troops received police IDs in certain cities, allowing them to stay in situ. The mission head, Mustafa al-Dabi, has faced allegations of links to human rights abuses in his home country, Sudan.

A senior UN source said the League should have deployed at least five people per trouble spot – which should have meant at least 10 times the number of observers than were deployed.

"They didn't have any training," said the source. "They weren't told about methodology and how to collect information; how to protect sources and witnesses; how to protect information."

Mr Shishakly said some observers were taking pictures. "I saw one on TV who was borrowing a pen from protesters. The government were taking them for a ride," he said.

In response, the Syrian government said it has given all observers from the Arab League mission full access to all parts of the country.