Syria Uprising: Qatar Leader Favors Sending Arab Troops
BEIRUT -- The leader of Qatar has said that Arab troops should be sent to Syria to stop a deadly crackdown that has claimed the lives of thousands of people over the past 10 months.
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's comments to CBS "60 Minutes," which will be aired Sunday, are the first statements by an Arab leader calling for the deployment of troops inside Syria. They come amid growing claims that a team of Arab observers dispatched to the country to curb the bloodshed has failed in its mission.
Asked whether he is in favor of Arab nations intervening in Syria, Sheik Hamad said that "for such a situation to stop the killing some troops should go to stop the killing."
Excerpts of the interview were sent to The Associated Press by CBS a day before it was to be aired.
Qatar, which once had close relations with Damascus, has been a harsh critic of the 10-month crackdown by President Bashar Assad's regime. The wealthy and influential Gulf state withdrew its ambassador to Syria in the summer to protest the killings.
Since the Arab Spring began more than a year ago, Qatar has taken an aggressive role, raising its influence in the region. It contributed war planes to the NATO air campaign in Libya, tried to negotiate an exit for Yemen's protest-battered president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and has taken the lead in Arab countries pressuring Assad.
The leading Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television has also been a strong supporter of the Arab uprisings, although some say the station remained largely silent during anti-government protests in the Gulf state of Bahrain. Qatar and Bahrain are part of the Saudi-led six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
Arab League observers began work in Syria on Dec. 27, to verify whether the government is abiding by its agreement to end the military crackdown on dissent.
But far from bringing a halt to the violence, the mission has coincided with an apparent increase in killings. A U.N. official said Tuesday that about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks alone, on top of an earlier estimate of more than 5,000 killed since March.
Opposition and army defectors meanwhile have increasingly been taking up arms to fight back against government forces.
On Saturday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported that "terrorists" detonated an explosive device that derailed a fuel train, setting it ablaze in the northwestern province of Idlib. SANA said three people who were in the train were wounded.
In July, Syria said saboteurs attacked a passenger train in central Syria, killing the driver and wounding scores others. At least five pipelines have been targeted since the anti-Assad uprising began in mid-March.
The government has blamed "saboteurs" for the attacks, and frequently blames the unrest in the country on terrorists and armed gangs.
Also Saturday, an opposition group said a Syrian brigadier-general had fled to Turkey, becoming the highest-ranking officer to defect. Mahmud Osman, a member of the Syrian National Council, said Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, the deputy commander in charge of Syria's northern army, fled to Turkey two weeks ago.
Osman said al-Sheik was staying at a camp near Turkey's border with Syria along with other members of the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors who switched sides to try to topple the Assad regime.
The group's leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, claims there are thousands of former soldiers in his ranks. It is impossible to verify independently how many defectors are fighting the regime.
The rising level of violence prompted Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby to warn Friday that Syria may be sliding toward civil war. Elaraby said Assad's regime was either not complying or only partially complying with the Arab League plan, which calls for removing Syrian heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country.
The mission has been plagued by problems, including accusations that the Syrian government is interfering with the team's work. This week, one of the observers resigned and told the pan-Arab TV channel Al-Jazeera that the monitor mission was a "farce" because of Syrian government control.
On Saturday, the leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, a strong ally of Assad's regime, urged Iran, Turkey and Arab states to work on ending the crisis in Syria which many fear could ignite a sectarian war in the region between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also urged Syria's opposition groups inside and outside the country to "cooperate with President Assad to carry out reforms" and end the crisis.
On Saturday, Lebanese officials said a man was killed by a bullet coming from the Syrian side of the border. The officials said Lebanese citizen Hassan Obeid, 17, died in a clinic where he was rushed after being hit in the stomach in his northern hometown of Bkarha near the border with Syria.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Several Lebanese and Syrian citizens have been killed in border areas in Lebanon since the uprising against Assad began.
More than 5,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon during the uprising.
In the restive central city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, troops at a checkpoint opened fire randomly on Saturday, killing two people.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.