Middle East

Syria expects to sign Arab League peace deal 'soon'

Jihad al-Makdisi (5 December 2011)
Image caption Mr Makdisi said the Arab League sanctions should be annulled when the protocol was signed

Syria has responded "positively" to an Arab League initiative aimed at ending eight months of deadly unrest, its foreign ministry spokesman has said.

Jihad al-Makdisi told reporters that he expected a deal to be signed soon.

He spoke after the expiry of the latest deadline set by the Arab League for Damascus to agree to its peace plan and allow in observers to monitor it.

Meanwhile, activists say pro-regime militia abducted and killed 34 people in the restive city of Homs.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted witnesses as saying the bodies had been found dumped in a square in the city on Monday. It blamed the "shabiha" militia for the deaths.

The head of the Arab League said he was studying the Syrian response, but noted that it contained new conditions.

Syria is under pressure to end its crackdown on an uprising the UN says has left more than 4,000 people dead, with reports of 17 new deaths on Monday alone.

Over the weekend, the Syrian army staged war games in a show of force.

The exercises included the test-firing of missiles, and air force and ground troop operations in simulated battle conditions.

State television said the aim was to test "the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression".

'Road cleared'

The Arab League had given the Syrian government until Sunday to sign its peace initiative and agree to the deployment of an observer mission, or face the imposition of further sanctions approved last week.

The new measures, officials said, would include freezing the assets of top officials and associates of President Bashar al-Assad, and banning them from other Arab countries. The number of flights to Syria would also be halved.

Some sanctions - including a ban on dealings with Syria's central bank, a halt to Arab government funding for projects in Syria, and a freeze of Syrian government assets - went into effect after Damascus failed to meet the last deadline to allow in observers on 25 November.

The Syrian government complained that the Arab League's proposals would infringe on national sovereignty, although it did not reject them.

At a news conference on Monday, Mr Makdisi said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had sent a message late on Sunday to the Arab League saying "the road has been cleared for the signing" of a deal.

"The protocol is intended to be signed soon," Mr Makdisi said. "The Syrian government has responded positively to the draft protocol."

"I am optimistic, although I await the Arab League response first."

Mr Makdisi said clarifications sought by the Syrian government on certain points of the peace plan should be included in its annexes, and also that the government wanted the agreement to be signed in Damascus rather than at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo or elsewhere.

Once that had been done, he added, he expected the sanctions on Syria to be lifted.

Image caption Despite the Arab League's efforts, the violence is continuing in Syria

But the secretary general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, told reporters in Cairo later that Mr Muallem's letter contained new conditions and elements "that we have not heard before".

Mr Arabi said they were being discussed by Arab foreign ministers and that nothing had been decided yet.

He also insisted that Syria's agreeing to sign the deal would not lead to the immediate lifting of sanctions.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says that if the Syrian government were to fully sign up to the peace plan, it would have to withdraw all its military forces from towns and villages around the country, release detainees, and allow observers in to ensure the violence really had ended.

That could mean that large parts of the country which have seen constant disturbances might slide out of government control, so the opposition is bound to be deeply sceptical, our correspondent adds.

Despite the Arab League's efforts, the violence is continuing in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the 34 civilians found dead in Homs had been seized from several "anti-regime neighbourhoods".

It also said mutinous soldiers killed four members of the security forces, including an officer, in the southern city of Dael in Daraa province.

It is not possible to verify reports of unrest as Syria strictly limits access to foreign journalists.

At least 950 people are reported to have been killed in November alone, making it the deadliest month since the uprising began in mid-March.

Earlier this week, UN Human Rights Council strongly condemned the "gross and systematic" violations by Syrian forces, and said it was appointing a special investigator to report on the ongoing crackdown.