Sunday, January 8, 2012

Arabs to meet on Syria as peace mission stumbles

CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab League monitors will say on Sunday Syria is defying a plan to end its crackdown on peaceful protests, Al Jazeera reported, as Arab foreign ministers prepared to discuss the findings of the mission.
An initial report from the monitors will say violence by Syrian security forces against anti-government protesters continues and the military has failed to withdraw from cities.
The Syrian government has only partially complied with its pledge to release political prisoners, with citizens complaining that some are still being detained in unknown locations, the pan-Arab satellite news channel said, citing leaked sections of the report.
The Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo were to discuss whether to ask the United Nations to help their mission, which has failed to end a 10-month crackdown on unrest in which thousands of people have died, according to U.N. figures.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said on Friday there had been no end to the killing and the monitors could not stay in the country to "waste time.
The ministers will examine what monitors have found since starting work on December 26 and will discuss ways for them to work more independently of Syrian authorities, a League source said.
But League sources said they were likely to reaffirm support for the operation, resisting calls to end what Syrian pro-democracy campaigners say is a toothless mission that buys more time for President Bashar al-Assad to suppress opponents.
Eleven Syrian soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in clashes with army defectors on Sunday in the village of Basr al-Harir in the southern province of Deraa, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It did not report any casualties among the army defectors.
Qatar, which chairs the Arab League committee on Syria, has
proposed inviting U.N. technicians and human rights experts to bolster the monitoring effort, League sources said. One said it might ask that U.N. staff helping the mission be Arabs.
Syria says it is providing the monitors with all they need and has urged them to show "objectivity and professionalism."
Speaking on the eve of the meeting, the head of the monitoring operations room at the League's headquarters in Cairo, Adnan al-Khudeir, said the withdrawal of the monitors was not on the agenda and they were continuing their work according to protocols agreed with the Syrian government.
Ten Jordanian monitors arrived in Damascus on Saturday, Khudeir said, bringing to 153 the number involved.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the uprising against Assad. The Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition force composed mainly of army deserters, has joined the revolt. The Syrian government says "terrorists" have killed 2,000 members of the security forces during the uprising.
The 22-member Arab League suspended Syria in November after months of silence over the crackdown. But some Arab leaders are uncomfortable about targeting one of their peers given their own restive populations, diplomats say.
Western powers that want Assad to step down to allow for democratic reform have welcomed the League's toughened stance. Arab states oppose any foreign military intervention like that which helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Assad's opponents say Syrian authorities have systematically deceived the monitors, for instance by hiding prisoners in military facilities.
Syria bars most independent journalists from the country, making first-hand reporting impossible, but a BBC Arabic service reporter was allowed to accompany three monitors to a town on the outskirts of Damascus. The BBC said it had been able to film, unhindered by the security forces.
Protesters and residents told the observers, all Algerian diplomats, of harsh treatment at the hands of the security forces. The observers witnessed a demonstration in which the crowd demanded Assad's execution, the BBC said.
In Damascus, crowds waving Syrian flags and pictures of Assad gathered on Saturday to bury 26 people whom the authorities said were killed by a suicide bomber.
The opposition Syrian National Council has accused the government of staging Friday's explosion to try to bolster its contention that it is fighting foreign-backed "terrorists," not a popular pro-democracy movement.
(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy and Ayman Samir in Cairo and Alistair Lyon in Beirut; Writing by Andrew Roche and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. concerned about Bahrain activist, urges probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States called on its ally Bahrain on Saturday to investigate the case of a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who the opposition says was beaten by security forces.
Opposition activists said several security officers threw Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to the ground and beat him on the head, neck and back after a protest march on Friday.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry has denied those accounts, saying on its Twitter feed that police found Rajab "lying on the ground" and took him to the hospital for treatment.
The Sunni-led island kingdom, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, last year sought to crush anti-government demonstrations mounted by the country's Shi'ite Muslim majority. Protest marches have continued in recent months, sometimes turning violent.
Officials from the U.S. embassy in Manama met for about an hour on Saturday with Rajab, who had a cut beneath one eye and bruising on his face, a senior U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence in Bahrain between police and demonstrators," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a written statement.
"While the facts surrounding the violence that transpired remain in dispute, we strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to undertake a full investigation (of Rajab's case) to determine if excessive force was employed by police," she added.
Nuland said embassy officials had raise Rajab's case with senior Bahraini officials and urged the government to carry out recommendations made by an independent commission that found Bahrain used excessive force in last year's crackdown.
"In general we urge all demonstrators to refrain from acts of violence and for police and security forces also to avoid excessive use of force," she added.
"We are very concerned about this case," said the senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that if an investigation found the Bahraini police used excessive force against him, those responsible should be punished.
While the official said there has been a pattern in recent months of protesters using Molotov cocktails and throwing things at police, he said there was no indication of violence by protesters during the march in which Rajab was hurt.
Bahrain launched a sweeping crackdown on anti-government protests last year that drew criticism internationally and from the state-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which found detainees were systematically abused and in some cases tortured to death.
The events in Bahrain, part of last year's "Arab Spring" of popular uprisings against autocratic rulers in the Middle East, have posed a policy challenge for the United States, which values the country as an ally in countering Iranian influence but which wants to be seen as supporting democracy everywhere.
The United States has said a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain depends in part on its response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which issued its report on November 23.
Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition bloc, al-Wefaq, welcomed the comments by the U.S. official, saying the government needed to be pushed to carry out the panel's recommendations.
"We appreciate this response and the Bahrainis are awaiting actions on the ground," said Wefaq member and former member of parliament Mattar Mattar.
"There is struggle in implementing the recommendations of the BICI and the regime needs to be pressured and monitored to apply it, rather than the international community just believing the regime's fake response, which contradicts the facts on the ground," he added.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Walsh)