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Syria again ignores Arab League deadline to allow observers

The group had warned of more severe sanctions unless a deal was signed Sunday. Syria says it is concerned about the number of monitors and how they would operate.

December 04, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Abu Hamzeh, who said he defected from the Syrian army in May, speaks with Reuters TV at an undisclosed location near the Lebanese-Syrian border on Saturday.
Abu Hamzeh, who said he defected from the Syrian army in May, speaks with… (Omar Ibrahim / Reuters )

Reporting from Beirut — Syria on Sunday ignored another Arab League deadline to accept observers, saying it was still negotiating details of the mission to monitor a plan aimed at ending months of bloodshed.

Arab foreign ministers had warned that they would soon tighten sanctions against President Bashar Assad's increasingly isolated regime unless a protocol for the observer mission was signed Sunday. Syrian officials maintain that they are committed to the league-negotiated plan signed last month, but have expressed concerns about the number of monitors that would be deployed and how they would operate.

"Messages are being exchanged between Syria and the Arab League to reach a certain vision that would facilitate the mission of observers in Syria, while preserving Syrian interests and sovereignty," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus, according to the Associated Press.

Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, said Saturday that Syria had sent the league a number of requests for clarification, which had been answered.

"We asked the Syrian foreign minister to come tomorrow and sign the paper in the event of their consent," Hamad said then. "And we are awaiting an answer from them."

He reiterated that failure to sign the agreement could lead to United Nations involvement, but did not elaborate.

Syria, which has also been sanctioned by the European Union, United States and former ally Turkey, says it has taken steps to implement the Arab League plan, including releasing hundreds of prisoners arrested in a crackdown on antigovernment protests inspired by the toppling of longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

But with no sign of a letup in the violence, the league voted late last month to suspend Syria and impose punishing measures, including halting cooperation with the country's central bank, freezing government assets and suspending funding for projects in Syria. It was an unusually tough response by an organization not known for publicly criticizing its members.

On Saturday, a league ministerial committee met in Doha, Qatar, to work out details of additional measures that could be implemented if Syria does not sign the agreement allowing observers into the country.

The committee drew up a list of 19 Syrian officials, including the president's younger brother, Maher, who would have their assets frozen and be barred from traveling to other Arab states. It also proposed to halve the number of flights to Syria from its member states but did not say when these measures would take effect.

Syrian officials have denounced the sanctions as a betrayal of Arab loyalty and accused the league of doing the bidding of the United States and other Western nations, which it claims are bent on military intervention. An Arab League resolution set the stage for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led bombing campaign that helped overthrow Moammar Kadafi in Libya. But Western and Arab officials have repeatedly ruled out similar action in Syria.

What began as a largely peaceful uprising has turned increasingly bloody as military defectors and some civilians have taken up arms against the government.

The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have been killed in Syria since March, when major protests began. Syrian officials, who dispute the figure, have from the beginning attributed the bloodshed to what they describe as foreign-backed armed gangs. They say more than 1,100 security force members have been killed, including seven who were buried Sunday.

Opposition activists said security forces killed as many as 22 people Sunday, all but one of them in the restive central province of Homs. The official Syrian Arab News Agency blamed "terrorist" groups for four of the deaths: a female university professor and a man who was said to have been killed with two of his sons.

Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria and neither side's claims could be independently verified.

Activists also reported the arrest of a U.S.-born blogger by Syrian authorities at the Jordanian border. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression said Razan Ghazzawi was headed to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to attend a workshop for advocates of press freedoms in the Arab world as its representative.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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