Syria's opposition says Arab League mission has failed

Activists and human-rights groups in Syria say objectives such as freeing prisoners and stopping killings are not being met.

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DAMASCUS // Activists and human-rights groups in Syria accused the Arab League observer mission yesterday of failing to meet its basic objectives, with thousands of protesters still jailed, military forces still deployed in urban centres and a continuation of deadly violence.

Their dismissal of the League's claims to have made progress comes as a committee of Arab ministers prepared to discuss the monitors' preliminary findings, with news reports suggesting it will consider the calls to pull the observers out.

The committee, which will meet in Cairo on Saturday, does not have the power to make such a decision but will present its recommendations to the Arab League.

Since the monitors began their work little more than a week ago, some 400 people have been killed by the security services, according to the Local Coordination Committees (LCS), a network of grassroots activists involved in protests.

At least 13 people were killed yesterday the LCCs reported, 10 in Homs, and one each in Deraa, Hama and Damascus despite the presence of Arab League monitors in at least two of those areas; they visited Daeel in Deraa province and Homs central prison.

The Syrian authorities reported four civilians and security personnel killed in Homs and two in Hama, blaming "armed terrorist groups". It also said security officers in Idleb province had defused 50 home-made bombs.

With violence continuing, opposition figures have called for the monitors to be given a tougher mandate, one that frees them from close oversight by the Syrian authorities, or to be pulled out entirely.

"The purpose of the observers is to check all political prisoners are freed and that the killing is stopped - on that basis their mission has failed," said Hussein Amach, a former Syrian government official turned regime critic.

Mr Amach called for observers to be given total freedom to travel without first informing the authorities, and without being accompanied by officials.

"If the monitors are not able to work with that kind of freedom, the mission should be withdrawn and it will then be up to the Arab League to take the next step and decide how best to stop the violence."

The Arab Parliament, a consultative body made up of lawmakers and advisers from states around the Middle East, has already called for the observers to be pulled out while the Free Syrian Army, a group of rebel soldiers, has warned it will end a ceasefire and begin a new phase of armed insurgency if the monitors are unable to stop the bloodshed.

Syrian officials say they are fully cooperating with the monitors and have accused their critics, including the United States, of trying to undermine the mission and pre-empt its findings. On Tuesday the US State Department said Damascus was not respecting its commitments to the observers.

"Such an accusation, the like of which was not made by the monitors who are working on the ground, constitutes clear evidence on Washington's hostile intentions against Syria in terms of targeting its security and stability," said Sana, the state-run news agency.

Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi accused the US of "inflaming and instigating violence".

A leading activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the monitors had betrayed the hopes of Syrians in the worst-hit areas.

"The regime is just buying time and it is using the monitors to justify that, they are a tool in the regime's hands, it is a game. They have done nothing for us," he said.

After a lengthy delay and the imposition of sanctions over non-compliance, observers were finally dispatched to Syria to see if Damascus is adhering to an agreement it made with the Arab League on November 2.

President Bashar Al Assad's regime was required to free political prisoners, withdraw the army from urban areas and halt violence that, accord to the United Nations, has killed more than 5,000 civilians and army defectors since a pro-democracy uprising began in March.

Mr Al Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed Islamic terrorists, not suppressing a largely peaceful call for political freedom. The government claims more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed by militants.

The monitoring mission was quickly embroiled in controversy when Mustafa Al Dabi, a former Sudanese general who is heading the mission, described the situation in Homs - one of the hardest hit areas in the country - as "reassuring".

That comment, which was later retracted in a statement by the mission, and Gen Al Dabi's association with a war in Darfur that killed 300,000 people, has prompted opposition activists to demand his replacement.

But Nabil Al Arabi, the Arab League chief, has given the general his backing and also defended the monitoring team's effectiveness, saying on Monday that tanks and heavy weapons had been pulled out of urban centres and that 3,484 prisoners had been freed due to their work. He called for the 100 or so observers - with more en route - to be given additional time to further prove their worth.

Anwar Al Bunni, a prominent Syrian civil-rights lawyer, said the monitors had made "no difference" to the number of detainees, and dismissed as disingenuous Mr Al Arabi's request for protest neighbourhoods to hand over names of those still being held in prison.

"People are released all the time, a few here a few there, it has nothing to do with the monitors' involvement in their cases, some are freed, more are arrested" he said. "And if 3,000 or so have been released, what about the other 30,000 or more in jail, when will they be freed?"

Mr Al Bunni said that human-rights activists in Syria had sent the Arab League and its monitors a highly detailed dossier relating to more than 15,000 prisoners.

"They have the names and the places, if they are serious about getting the prisoners out, they can start with them," he said.

Despite criticism of the mission, protesters continue to turn out in force when they hear observers are present. Activists say that those talking to the monitors are subsequently targeted by security services and arrested.