The Arab League said Saturday that it was suspending its observer mission in Syria amid escalating violence that has left scores dead in recent days.
The decision is the latest sign that the 10-month-old crisis in Syria is worsening as diplomats at the United Nations prepare to consider a league-backed plan calling on President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.
In a statement, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby cited the "critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence" as the reason for suspending the monitoring operation.
The monitors went into Syria last month amid some hope that their presence could help stop the bloodshed that began in March when pro-democracy protesters rose up against the Assad government. The monitors' task was to ensure that the government was complying with a league-backed peace blueprint that, among other things, called for the regime to withdraw troops from cities and other populated areas.
Some opposition activists have dismissed the observer operation as a means for Assad to buy more time for his beleaguered administration. Still, the observers were welcomed when they arrived last month.
But the violence appears to have flared on both sides and the observers have found it hard to do their job.
The 100 or so monitors will remain in Syria but won't make field visits to trouble spots, the league said, leaving open the possibility that the mission could resume.
It was unclear from the league's statement whether the mission was suspended because of safety concern or displeasure at stepped-up government attacks, notably in opposition centers such as the cities of Homs and Hama and various suburbs of Damascus, the capital. The Syrian government has said it must respond to what it calls terrorist attacks.
The league has been harshly critical of Assad, and six Persian Gulf nations recently withdrew their monitors and excoriated the government for what the six monarchies called Syria's continued reliance on force.
The Syrian government Saturday assailed the decision to suspend the monitor mission, labeling it "an escalation against Syria that reflects the persistence of some member countries in supporting armed terrorist groups," the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported. The regime has accused several fellow Arab states, led by Qatar, of being involved in a "conspiracy" to topple Assad, whose family has ruled for more than 40 years.
The Arab League has called on Assad to relinquish power and help pave the way for a transitional government and elections. The Syrian government has rejected the proposal as a violation of its sovereignty.
However, the Arab League is trying to win U.N. support for its political plan. The Security Council is expected to consider the matter this week.
But Russia, which wields veto power on the U.N. Security Council, has said it will not support any resolution calling for sanctions against Syria or "regime change" in Damascus. Moscow is wary that Western nations and their Arab allies may be seeking a kind of reprise of what happened last year in Libya. A Security Council resolution opened the way for a Western-led bombing campaign in Libya and the eventual ouster and killing of longtime leader Moammar Kadafi.
Violence continued to rage Saturday in Syria, with casualties reported on both sides.
An opposition group reported government shelling of the mountain town of Rankous, outside Damascus. The Local Coordinating Committees said the death toll throughout Syria had topped 150 since Thursday.
The government reported that "an armed terrorist group" attacked a bus ferrying army personnel outside the capital, killing seven, the official news agency reported.