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Arab League turns to UN for help in Syria

Qatari Premier Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani speaks during a news conference at the Arab League ministerial committee meeting to discuss the Syrian unrest in Doha Dec. 17, 2011. (REUTERS/Stringer)

DAMASCUS: The Arab League has turned to the United Nations for help after admitting "mistakes" in its Syria monitoring mission, which has come in for withering criticism for its failure to stem bloodletting.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, was Thursday to hold talks in Cairo with the Arab League about the Syrian crisis, amid mounting frustration over the unrelenting violence.

His meeting comes as President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which accuses the United States of "gross interference" in Arab affairs, said it freed 552 people detained for involvement in unrest and who have "no blood on their hands."

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, who heads an Arab League task force on Syria, on Wednesday discussed the deadly protest crackdown with UN leader Ban Ki-moon in New York, Kuwait's KUNA news agency reported.

"We are coming here for technical help and to see the experience the UN has, because this is the first time the Arab League is involved in sending monitors, and there are some mistakes," said Sheikh Hamad, quoted by KUNA.

A UN spokesman said only that Ban and the sheikh "discussed practical measures by which the United Nations could support the observer mission of the Arab League in Syria."

The sheikh would not say what mistakes had been made. Syrian opposition groups say the monitors have been kept under too tight a rein in the country and that hundreds of people have been killed despite the presence of the observers.

"This is the first experience for us. I said we have to evaluate what sorts of mistakes" have been made, said the Qatari prime minister.

"There is no doubt for me. I can see there are mistakes, but we went there not to stop the killing but to monitor."

The prime minister said it was President Assad's job to stop the killings, which the United Nations last month put at more than 5,000 since March.

The monitors had done their best, Sheikh Hamad was quoted as saying, but they do not have enough experience.

That is why "we need the experience from the UN and we need to see how we can evaluate if they go back, how they will work."

Sheikh Hamad said that if the observer mission goes back, the Syrian government must keep its "commitments" under the accord made with the 22-member Arab bloc.

Arab League ministers are to discuss the mission at a meeting on Saturday.

Sheikh Hamad said ministers would evaluate the crisis and "we will see whether we can continue the mission or not and how we can continue the mission. But we need to hear the reports of the people who have been on the ground first."

Arab League observers have been in Syria since December 26 trying to assess the Assad regime's implementation of a peace agreement aimed at ending the violence.

The mission has come in for scathing criticism from Syrian democracy activists who denounced it as "unprofessional" after the Arab League chief admitted snipers remained active in the country despite its presence.

The criticism came from the Local Coordination Committees, which also added that the Syrian regime was finding it easy to deceive the Arab observer mission.

"Soldiers wear police uniforms, drive repainted military vehicles and change the names of places, but this does not mean the army withdrew from cities and streets, or that the regime is applying the provisions of the Arab protocol," the committees said in a statement.

The LCC estimate at least 390 people have been killed since the observers began their mission.

The White House has said it is "past time" for the UN Security Council to act, as "sniper fire, torture and murder" were continuing in Syria and the Arab League conditions for the regime have been dishonored.

"We want to see the international community stand together united in support of the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

But the Assad regime denounced the United States for "gross interference" in Arab League affairs and "an unjustified attempt to internationalize" the issue.

And, in bid to show it was implementing the Arab peace road map, it on Thursday announced the release of 552 prisoners, taking to almost 4,000 the number freed since the start of November.

The official SANA news agency said "552 prisoners involved in the latest events in Syria and who have no blood on their hands were released."

"The released persons are not involved in terrorist bloody acts of killings and explosions against Syrians," it said, adding 775 were freed last week and 2,645 during November.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi has acknowledged that "there are still snipers" in Syria, but defended the monitors' mission for securing prisoner releases and removing tanks from the streets.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the deaths of 10 more civilians on Wednesday.

 

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