01/08/2012 09:15 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2012

Arab League's Syria Meeting Begins

* Qatari PM says Syria not implementing peace plan

* Arab League may ask United Nations for help

* Opposition says Damascus deceiving monitors (Releads with closing statement)

By Yasmine Saleh and Ayman Samir

CAIRO, Jan 8 (Reuters) - The Arab League urged the Syrian government on Sunday to stop its violence against protesters and allow Arab monitors in the country to work more independently, but stopped short of asking for United Nations experts to bolster its peace mission.

The arrival last month of Arab monitors in Syria to see if the government was honouring a pledge to end a crackdown on a popular revolt has not ended the violence, in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed.

After a progress meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League group on Syria said the government had only partly implemented a promise to stop the crackdown, free those jailed during the crisis and withdraw its troops from the cities.

In its closing communique, the League said it would increase the number of monitors from the present 165 and give them more resources, ignoring calls to end what pro-democracy campaigners say is a toothless mission that buys more time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to suppress opponents.

Arab League officials said the continuation of the mission, which is due to make a full report on Jan. 19, depends on the Syrian government's commitment to ending violence and honouring its promises. Arab League foreign ministers will discuss the findings on Jan. 19-20.

"If the ... report comes out saying the violence has not stopped, the Arab League will have a responsibility to act on that ... We have to be clear and honest with the Syrian people," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference after the meeting.

He did not say what the Arab League might do, but Assad's failure to abide by the peace plan resulted in Syria's suspension from the 22-member regional body in November.

The Arab plan also called for Assad's government to permit peaceful protests, start dialogue with political opponents and allow foreign media to travel freely to the country. Syria agreed, but the pledge remains unfulfilled.

Qatar, which chairs the group and has been critical of the mission's performance, had proposed inviting U.N. technicians and human rights experts to help Arab monitors assess whether Syria was honouring its pledges. The League said it had not asked for monitors.

"We have not yet agreed to send individuals," Sheikh Hamad said. Asked if this could happen in the future, he said: "it depends on how events develop."


About 50 protesters gathered outside the Cairo hotel where the meeting was held, singing: "The people want the president dead" and "Down, down with Bashar". Some waved caricatures that likened Assad to a vampire sucking the the Syrian people's blood.

Syrian opposition activists criticised the Arab League's failure to take a firmer line against Assad.

"This is an Arab conspiracy, shame on them, shame on Qatar. Every day there are murders of women and kids, what shame," activist Ma'moun al Hamsy screamed as he entered the room at the end of the news conference.

Some Syrian opposition groups hope a failure of the mission might open the way to foreign military intervention like that which helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.

But Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said that while the Syrian opposition had asked for the case to be referred to the U.N. Security Council, there was no international appetite for military intervention in Syria.

"We do not live in an ideal world and there is no country in the world that is willing to use force," he said. "The Arab countries are all very keen to ensure that the solution comes through an Arab framework and we are trying through all possible means to ensure this."

In Syria, security forces and pro-Assad militiamen killed seven people on Sunday in and around the central city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Two civilians were killed by gunfire during a security sweep in the town of Zabadani, where clashes broke out between the military and army deserters, it said.

Another opposition organisation, the Local Coordination Committees, put Sunday's death toll at 14, including 10 in Homs.

The Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition force composed mainly of army deserters, has joined the 10-month revolt, which has turned increasingly violent. The government says "terrorists" have killed 2,000 members of the security forces during the uprising.

The Arab League communique called on the Syrian opposition to present its political vision for the country's future, and asked the League's secretary general to convene a Syrian opposition meeting. (Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Alistair Lyon in Beirut; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Lin Noueihed; Editing by Tim Pearce)



Photos from Syria: