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Arab observers resume work for the first time in a week amid Syria violence

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Arab League observers in Syria, depleted by a pullout of their Gulf Arab colleagues, resumed work on Thursday for the first time in a week during which a bloody struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents has raged on.

Security forces deployed across the Damascus suburb of Douma on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Douma, a protest hotbed that has recently seen a rise in rebel activity, was rocked by loud explosions overnight, according to activists living there.

The British-based Observatory said army operations under way in parts of the countryside around the capital had led to fighting on Wednesday night but said there were no signs of clashes in Douma on Thursday since security forces deployed.

The Arab League, while extending the monitoring mission for another month, called on Sunday for Assad to step down as part of a transition plan for which it is seeking U.N. support.

France and Britain have joined efforts at the United Nations to end Assad’s 11-year rule, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country remained opposed to sanctions on Syria and reiterated its opposition to military intervention.

“The U.N. Security Council must support the Arab League’s courageous decisions which are trying to end the repression and violence in Syria and find a solution to the political crisis,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

The Security Council could vote as early as next week on a Western-Arab draft resolution, council diplomats said.

A group of Arab monitors planned to visit the troubled Damascus suburb of Irbin, one of them said. It would be their first outing since Friday. The mission had put its activities on hold until Arab foreign ministers met to decide its future.

Gulf Arab states have since withdrawn their 55 observers from the 165-strong team, saying they were sure “the bloodshed and killing of innocents would continue.” Arab League officials said they would be replaced and work would go on.
An Algerian observer in the team heading to Irbin said he was nervous because some opposition groups had said they would not cooperate with the mission. “We don’t know what to expect,” he told Reuters, declining to be named.

Another monitor said he was confused about the purpose of prolonging the mission for another four weeks. “The report has been written and the (Arab League) decisions have been taken, so another month to do what? We are not sure,” he said.

Red Crescent official killed

Syrian opposition groups have accused the observer mission, which deployed on Dec. 26, of giving Assad diplomatic cover to pursue a crackdown on protesters and rebels in which more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, by a U.N. tally.

The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the northern town of Idlib was shot dead on Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said, in an attack which Damascus blamed on “terrorists.”

State news agency SANA also said a priest was killed by “terrorists” while helping a wounded person in the city of Hama.

The opposition Local Coordinating Committees activist group said a total of 27 people had been killed, including six fighters in the rebel Free Syrian Army.

U.N. cannot keep track of toll

The U.N. said it cannot keep track of the death toll in Syria as government forces targeted the protest hub of Hama with a major assault.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay gave a toll of more than 5,000 dead when she spoke to the U.N. Security Council in early December, but has not updated it.

Under secretary general B. Lynn Pascoe told the council on January 10 that at least 400 people had been killed since Arab League monitors arrived in Syria on December 26.

After meeting Security Council ambassadors again, Pillay said the toll had risen but added: “We are experiencing difficulties because of the fragmentation on the ground.

“Some areas are totally closed such as parts of Homs, so we are unable to update that figure but in my view 5,000 and more is a huge figure and should really shock the international community into taking action,” she told reporters.

Russia said on Wednesday it would consider “constructive proposals” to end the bloodshed in Syria but opposed the use of force or sanctions.

Lavrov said any U.N. Security Council resolution backed by Moscow “must firmly record that it cannot be used or interpreted to justify anyone’s outside military intervention in the Syria crisis.”

Russia and China both blocked a previous Western attempt to have the Security Council formally condemn Assad’s crackdown and impose stiff sanctions if he refuses to enter direct talks.

According to diplomats at the United Nations, European and Arab nations are currently hammering out a Security Council draft resolution condemning the crackdown.

They are said to want a vote early next week on a resolution that also hints at sanctions.