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Syria Rejects Arab League's Request For Assad To Step Down, Set Up New Unity Government

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(Adds quotes from Syrian statement, details)

BEIRUT, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Syria rejected on Monday a request by Arab League foreign ministers that President Bashar al-Assad hand over power to a deputy and set up a new unity government, saying the plan was part of 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," state news agency SANA quoted an official source as saying.

The statement did not mention the ministers' decision to extend the mission of Arab League observers, who have faced criticism over their failure to stem the bloodshed in Syria since they first deployed last month.

Arab foreign ministers called on Assad on Sunday to hand over to a deputy and set up a new unity government, as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Assad 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.

"Syria condemns this decision which is part of the conspiracy against Syria," the official source said, saying that instead of cutting off the flow of money and weapons to "terrorist groups" in Syria, the ministers were issuing "inflammatory statements".

The source criticised the Arab League for ignoring reforms which Assad has promised, including a referendum on a new constitution, and which were lacking "in many of the Arab states leading the hostile campaign against Syria". (Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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