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Syria faces Arab League deadline to allow monitors

December 4, 2011 |  9:08 am

REPORTING FROM BEIRUT — Syria indicated Sunday that it might be willing to allow Arab monitors into the country after the Arab League threatened to tighten sanctions against President Bashar Assad’s increasingly isolated regime and to seek the help of the United Nations to end a violent crackdown against dissent.

Arab foreign ministers have given Syria until Sunday to sign their proposal for the observer mission, part of a league-negotiated plan agreed to by Syria last month to end the bloodshed. Syrian officials, who have ignored numerous previous deadlines, maintain they are committed to the plan, but have concerns about how the monitors 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," Syrian 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 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. And we are awaiting an answer from them,” Jassim told reporters Saturday in Doha, the Qatari capital.

He reiterated that failure to sign the protocol could lead to U.N. involvement, but did not elaborate.

Syria says it has taken steps to implement the plan, including releasing hundreds of prisoners. But with no sign that the violence is easing, the league voted last month to suspend Syria and impose punishing sanctions, including halting cooperation with the country’s central bank, freezing government assets and suspending funding for projects in Syria.

Those sanctions went into effect immediately. On Saturday, a league ministerial committee met in Doha to work out details of additional measures that could be implemented if Syria does not sign a protocol allowing hundreds of 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.

Syrian officials have slammed 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 NATO-led bombing campaign that helped topple Moammar Kadafi’s regime 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 in recent months as military defectors and other Syrians 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 "Arab Spring"-inspired protests began. Syrian officials, who dispute the figure, have from the beginning blamed the bloodshed on what it describes as foreign-backed armed gangs. They say more than 1,100 security force members have been killed.

Activists with the opposition Local Coordination Committees said security forces killed 22 people Sunday, all but one of them in the restive central province of Homs. Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria and the claim could not be independently verified.


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— Alexandra Zavis

Photo: A Syrian girl shouts during a rally Sunday in Athens in support of the protests in Syria against President Bashar Assad and his regime. Credit: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP / Getty Images