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Gulf states withdrawing monitors from Syria and urge U.N. action

An Arab League peace plan for Syria appeared to be near collapse Tuesday as six Persian Gulf nations announced their intention to withdraw monitors from the country and urged the United Nations Security Council to take “all needed measures” to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.

The gulf monarchies, including regional giant Saudi Arabia, said in a statement that Assad’s government had failed to comply with demands by the 22-member regional bloc designed to curb months of bloodshed in Syria. The six nations — which also include Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — contributed 55 of the 165 monitors sent to Syria.

On Monday, Syria rejected as a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty a proposed Arab League political road map that called for Assad to transfer power to a deputy and for the establishment of a national unity government within two months. Supervised parliamentary and presidential elections would follow, according to the proposal.

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Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was defiant Tuesday at a news conference in Damascus, the Syrian capital, assailing the league’s political plan and denouncing “a plot against Syria” abetted by Arab nations. Syria, a close ally of Iran, has repeatedly alleged that it is the victim of a conspiracy backed by Washington and other Western nations in alliance with Arab states.

Moallem said the government has a duty to suppress what he described as armed terrorist gangs, signaling that Syrian authorities have no intention of ending a violent crackdown against a 10-month uprising.

He was dismissive of any effort to refer Syria to the Security Council, saying the Arab League could take the issue “to New York or to the moon, as long as we don’t have to pay for their ticket.”

Syria is counting on two Security Council allies, Russia and China, to block any U.N. effort to pressure the Assad regime. Last year, Russia and China jointly vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus’ crackdown on antigovernment protests.

Both Russia and China are wary of the Libya precedent, in which a U.N. resolution last year opened the way for armed Western intervention against the government of the late Moammar Kadafi. Western nations have denied any intention to intervene militarily in Syria.

“Russia will not agree on the foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs, and this is a red line,” Moallem said Tuesday.

But Western and Arab diplomats have voiced the hope that Syria’s rejection of the league’s political demands could highlight what they call Damascus’ intransigence and weaken Russian and Chinese resolve, leading to some U.N. move against the Assad regime.

The gulf nations’ decision to withdraw their personnel in Syria left in doubt the future of the observer mission, which is intended to ensure that Damascus complies with a league-negotiated plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and other residential areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.

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Other countries could also decide to pull out monitors, according to members of the mission, which began last month. But League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Helli told reporters in Cairo that they could be replaced with monitors from other countries and that the mission would continue its work.

Despite having reservations, Syria said it was granting the league’s request to extend the mission by a month after its mandate expired Thursday.

Syrian authorities have expressed concern that armed rebels are moving into areas vacated by its military forces under the league’s plan. The government has already lost effective control of some rebel strongholds, such as parts of the embattled city of Homs, one of the central points of the uprising.

Moallem said “armed groups” had exploited the observers’ presence to step up attacks on government forces, tripling the number of army and law enforcement casualties in the conflict. The government says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed since major antigovernment protests began in March.

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“It is the duty of the Syrian government to take the necessary measures to address the issue of these armed elements who are wreaking havoc across Syria,” Moallem said.

Opposition activists have also challenged the effectiveness of the observers, who they say are only buying time for the government’s crackdown. Reports of the number of people killed in political violence Tuesday ranged from 25 to more than 60, with the highest tolls in the Homs region, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as well as the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of opposition activists. The figures could not be independently verified.

According to the United Nations, more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed since mid-March.

Still, Syria says it is committed to political reform and a new constitution after more than four decades of authoritarian rule led by the Assad family.

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“We will teach them democracy and pluralism,” Moallem said, referring to other Arab nations.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Zavis reported from Damascus and McDonnell from Beirut.

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Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report from Damascus.


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