Syrian soldiers who defected join protesters in the al-Khaldiya neighborhood of Homs on Thursday
Syrian soldiers who defected join protesters in the al-Khaldiya neighborhood of the restive city of Homs on January 26. Syrian forces launched a pre-dawn raid on Friday against the rebellious city of Homs where dozens have been killed as Western and Arab nations rush to unveil a draft UN resolution that would condemn the deadly crackdown. © - AFP
Syrian soldiers who defected join protesters in the al-Khaldiya neighborhood of Homs on Thursday
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AFP
Last updated: January 28, 2012

Syria raids opposition strongholds as diplomacy heats up

The Arab League suspended its controversial observer mission in Syria on Saturday as the bloodshed in a crackdown on anti-regime protests spiked, with the death toll topping 210 in four days.

The announcement came as the opposition Syrian National Council said its leader would travel to New York to press the UN Security Council for protection from President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

SNC chief Burhan Ghaliun's trip comes amid a new bid by Arab and European states for UN action over the nearly 11-month-old deadly crackdown on dissent that has hit immediate opposition from staunch Syria ally Russia.

It also comes as Gulf states and Turkey called in Istanbul for global efforts to focus on bringing the bloodshed to an "immediate end" and paving the way for the initiation of a political transition.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said "the decision to suspend the observer mission was taken after a series of consultations with Arab foreign ministers because of the upsurge of violence whose victims are innocent civilians."

He said it also came "after the Syrian government chose the option of escalation, which increased the number of victims."

The monitoring mission head, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, said on Friday that unrest had soared "in a significant way" since Tuesday, especially in the central cities of Homs and Hama and in the northern Idlib region.

According to a tally by AFP taken from reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and official Syrian media, 212 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since Tuesday.

That adds to the figure of more than 5,400 given by the United Nations last month since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.

The 165 League observers were deployed a month ago after Syria agreed to a League plan foreseeing a halt to the violence, prisoners freed, tanks withdrawn from built-up areas and free movement of observers and foreign media.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Now is the time for the international community to unite, including by agreeing a United Nations Security Council Resolution this week, to make clear to President Assad and his regime that the killing must stop."

Undeterred, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar said on Saturday the authorities were determined to "cleanse" Syria and restore order.

"The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws ... to restore safety and security," state news agency SANA quoted him as saying at a ceremony in honour of fallen soldiers.

But Syria also said it was "surprised and regrets the decision taken by Arabi to suspend the observer mission after having decided (last week) to extend it for a month," state news agency SANA reported.

An unidentified official accused Arabi of acting at the request of Qatar, which heads the League's committee on Syria. "This decision is aimed at increasing the pressure for foreign intervention," SANA quoted him as saying.

The SNC, meanwhile, has "decided to head to the Security Council tomorrow, led by Burhan Ghaliun, to present the Syrian case... and demand protection," executive committee member Samir Neshar told an Istanbul news conference.

He spoke after Gulf states and Turkey called on Assad to accept an Arab League proposal for him to step down and turn over power to his deputy before formation of a unity government.

Syria has categorically rejected the proposal.

Violence cost at least 34 lives across Syria on Saturday, activists said, reporting fierce clashes between soldiers and deserters. An officer and six soldiers died in an ambush on a bus near Damascus, state media said.

Damascus does not recognise the scale of the protest movement, insisting instead that it is fighting "terrorist groups" seeking to sow chaos as part of a foreign-hatched conspiracy.

As the violence rages, wrangling continues over the wording of a draft Security Council resolution its supporters want put to the vote in the next week.

Russia made clear that the Arab and European draft formally submitted by Morocco on Friday crossed "our red lines."

A previous European draft that would have threatened "targeted measures" against Assad's regime was vetoed by Beijing and Moscow in October.

The new text "fully supports" the Arab League plan and "encourages" all states to follow sanctions adopted by the pan-Arab bloc last November, but contains no mandatory action.

Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow opposed any hint of sanctions, arms embargo or "regime change" and accused the Arab League of seeking to "impose" a solution.

The SNC, which also accused Iran of taking part in the crackdown on protests in Syria, urged the Syrian diaspora to protest on Sunday outside Russian diplomatic missions against Moscow's opposition to the draft resolution.

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