Syria rejects new Arab League plan


Syria has rebuffed an Arab League call for president Bashar al-Assad to step down in favour of a unity government as interference in its affairs, underlining its determination to defeat a 10-month-old uprising seeking Dr Assad's removal.

It was not immediately clear whether Syria would accept the League's decision to keep Arab observers in the country for another month despite their failure to stem bloodshed in which hundreds of people have died since they deployed on December 26th.

But any credibility the mission might retain was undermined when Saudi Arabia, a foe of Syria's closest ally Iran, announced it would withdraw its own monitors because of the Syrian authorities' failure to cooperate with its mandate. It was unclear if other Gulf states would follow suit.

An official Syrian source quoted by the state news agency SANA said the new Arab League plan, which told Dr Assad to hand power to a deputy pending democratic elections, reflected a "conspiracy against Syria."

"Syria rejects the decisions of the Arab League ministerial council ... and considers them a violation of its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in its internal affairs," the source said.

Dr Assad (46) has faced more than 10 months of protests against his rule and a growing armed rebellion. The United Nations says 5,000 people have been killed in the security crackdown. The authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed armed "terrorists" who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.

Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, referring to an Arab League plan accepted by Damascus in November, said Riyadh would withdraw its monitors "because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab resolution plan."

That earlier plan demanded that Assad end violence, withdraw troops from urban areas, free detainees, allow peaceful protests and engage in dialogue with the opposition.

"We are calling on the international community to bear its responsibility, and that includes our brothers in Islamic states and our friends in Russia, China, Europe and the United States," Mr Faisal said, calling for "all possible pressure" on Syria.

The Syrian official source upbraided Arab ministers for making inflammatory remarks instead of denying money and weapons to "terrorist groups" in Syria and criticised the League for ignoring Assad's promised reforms, which were lacking "in many of the Arab states leading the hostile campaign against Syria."

Splits among the League's 22 members have complicated its diplomacy on Syria, but in the end only Lebanon refused to approve Sunday's proposal, although Algeria objected to taking the plan to the United Nations Security Council.

The main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), which has urged the League for weeks to refer the Syria crisis to the Security Council, welcomed the initiative.

"This confirms that all Arab countries today consider the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad to be finished and that it must be replaced," SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun said in Cairo.

The Security Council is also divided on how to respond, with Western powers demanding tougher sanctions and an arms embargo, measures opposed by Assad's ally Russia.

Asked about previously announced Arab sanctions on Syria, Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said: "Arab economic sanctions will be imposed via the Security Council." He did not elaborate.