Arab monitors say unable to halt Syrian killings

BEIRUT Thu Jan 12, 2012 5:24am IST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus January 11, 2012. REUTERS/Wael Hmedan-Presidential Palace

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus January 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Wael Hmedan-Presidential Palace

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - An Algerian has quit the Arab League team sent to check Syria's compliance with an Arab peace plan, and a second monitor said he might leave because the mission was failing to end the killing of civilians protesting against the president's rule.

The 22-member League, which suspended Syria in November, sent the monitors last month to verify if Syria was carrying out an agreement to halt its crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad swore on Wednesday to defeat "foreign conspirators" plotting to end his rule and a Frenchman became the first foreign journalist to be killed in 10 months of unrest in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed.

Syria barred most foreign media soon after protests began in March, but more journalists have been admitted since the Arab League sent in its monitors. The French journalist who was killed had been invited to Syria by the government.

"France 2 television has just learned with a great deal of sorrow of the death of reporter Gilles Jacquier in Homs," the broadcaster said.

A Belgian reporter who was there told Reuters several mortar rounds or grenades had landed in the area.

"There was a lot of chaos, blood, hysteria," he said. Syrian state television said eight people were killed in the incident, which it blamed on a "terrorist group".

For graphic on Arab League link.reuters.com/pev65s

Arab League monitor Anwar Malek said he had resigned because the mission was powerless to prevent "scenes of horror" in Homs.

"The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled," the Algerian told Al Jazeera television. "The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime ..."

Malek's resignation was a blow to a mission already criticised for inefficiency and whose members have come under attack this week from both Assad supporters and protesters, and the threat of a second resignation further undermined it.

The second monitor, asked if he agreed with Malek, said: "It is true, it is true. Even I am trying to leave on Friday. The mission is unclear.... It does not serve the citizens. It does not serve anything."

The monitor, speaking by telephone from Syria, asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

"The military gear is still present even in the mosques. We asked that military equipment be withdrawn from the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque in Deraa and until today they have not withdrawn it," he said.

Under the Arab peace plan, Syrian authorities are supposed to stop attacking peaceful protests, withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and open a political dialogue.

On Tuesday the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said a U.N. official had told the Security Council the killings had accelerated since the monitors arrived.

Assad himself, smiling and relaxed in a dark jacket and open-necked shirt, greeted thousands of rapturous supporters in a Damascus square on Wednesday, a day after breaking a six-month public silence.

The crowd shouted "Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad", a reference to loyalist militiamen, mostly members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, who have gained a fearsome reputation for their part in suppressing protests against the president.

Assad's wife Asma and their two children joined him for his surprise appearance in the capital's central Umayyad Square.

"I belong to this street," said Assad, 46, adding that Syria faced foreign conspirators. "We will make this phase the end for them and their plans. We are going to win without any doubt."

His remarks followed a 100-minute speech on Tuesday in which he mocked the Arab League, vowed to hit "terrorists" with an iron fist and promised reforms, but with no hint that he would relinquish the power he inherited from his father in 2000.

The League said on Wednesday it was delaying sending more monitors after an attack on one team in the port of Latakia in which 11 observers were lightly injured. It blamed protesters but said the authorities should have protected the team.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people had been killed in Kafr Nabouda, in Hama province, where troops staging raids fought army deserters.

The authorities accuse armed Islamist militants of killing 2,000 members of the security forces.

The United States said it was ordering a further cut in its embassy staff in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that the monitoring mission cannot continue indefinitely and dismissed Assad speech on Tuesday as "chillingly cynical".

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Laila Bassam and Dominic Evans in Beirut, Martina Fuchs in Dubai, Lin Noueihed, Ayman Samir and Aly el-Daly in Cairo; Editing by Tim Pearce and Louise Ireland)

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