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January 27, 2012

Arab League Suspends Syria Observer Mission

The Arab League said Saturday it is suspending activities by its observer mission in Syria, as the Damascus government's crackdown against dissent intensifies.

The decision to freeze the Arab League observer mission came in the midst of a broad government offensive on areas surrounding the capital, Damascus, and other major cities including Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deir ez Zor. Opposition videos showed government artillery shelling at least half a dozen towns and cities.

Around 100 people are believed to have been killed in Syria in recent days. 

The Arab League's deputy secretary-general said the move to suspend the observer mission was "forced" by the critical and worsening situation in Syria.

The League official, Ahmed Ben Helli, said the observers are not officially being withdrawn from Syria now, but will remain in Damascus. However, the Arab League's own report on the observer mission, seen at the United Nations Saturday, said more than 20 of the original 166 observers have already left Syria.

Arab League ambassadors are to meet next Saturday to make final decisions about the mission.

Syrian government analyst George Jabbour told al Hurra TV that Syria agreed to a one-month extension of the observer mission and deplores the decision to suspend it.

The Arab League asked Syria to extend the observers' time in Syria, and the government agreed, said Jabbour. The situation on the ground makes it necessary to have observers present, and he added authorities in Damascus feel any decision to withdraw the Arab League team would be unjustified.

Across Syria Saturday, an oil pipeline exploded and caught fire near the desert town of Deir ez Zor. The government and the opposition blamed each other for the blast.

Scattered reports of a Syrian government military escalation were accompanied by a warning on state television that interior ministry is “adamant about purging the country of all outlaws.”

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, meeting in Turkey, accused Iran of helping Syria try to suppress the uprising, which has been growing since March.  

Opposition Syrian National Council member Samir Najjar urged Iran to stop.  The council condemns the Iranian regime for helping to kill Syrian citizens demanding freedom, he said, calling on Tehran to end such actions.

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, said the decision to freeze the Arab League observer mission indicates the Assad government's crackdown is going to intensify further. "There has been a dramatic escalation in violence in Syria and, I believe that the termination of the mission of the Arab League observers in Syria indicates that the Syrian Army is about to launch a major offensive. The regime is about to do something dramatic," said Khashan.

He suggested Syrian authorities are responding to the current trip to the United Nations by Arab League leaders. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al Arabi and Qatar's foreign minister Hamad Ben Jassem are in New York for talks with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the Arab League's plan for resolving the Syrian crisis.

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