Middle East

Syria rejects Arab League plan for Assad to step down

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Media captionQatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani says the Arab League wants to see stability and security

Syria has rejected an Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy.

The league, meeting in Cairo, urged Syria to form a national unity government with the opposition within two months.

A government official called the plan "flagrant interference" in Syria's internal affairs, state TV said.

The UN says more than 5,000 people have died as a result of the crackdown on protests since they began last March.

The league called on both sides to end the bloodshed.

The government in Damascus says it is fighting "terrorists and armed gangs" and claims that some 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

Meanwhile, Germany is pushing for the UN Security Council to back the Arab League in its efforts to get President Assad to hand over power.

The German ambassador to the UN, Peter Wittig called the Arab League plan a "game changer" for the Security Council which has been deadlocked over Syria.

Russia and China have already vetoed one resolution condemning the crackdown by the Syrian government.

Arab League split

"Syria rejects the decisions taken which are outside an Arab working plan, and considers them an attack on its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in internal affairs," the unnamed Syrian official said.

The official said the Arab League proposals were not in the interests of the Syrian people and would not prevent the country from "advancing its political reforms and bringing security and stability to its people".

Saudi Arabia said it was pulling out of the league's 165-strong monitoring mission in Syria because Damascus had broken promises on peace initiatives.

While the Arab League ministers said they were extending the controversial mission for another month, analysts say the Saudi decision has thrown its longer-term future into doubt.

Saudi Arabia is one of the key funders of the league's projects, but the monitors have been criticised for failing to stop the violence.

Speaking in Cairo on Monday, the head of the monitors, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, defended the mission.

He said the monitors were in Syria to observe implementation of an Arab League plan to end the violence, and indeed, despite some shootings and explosions, they had seen the situation improve while they were there.

The Arab League is now increasingly split over what could be done to resolve the Syrian crisis, BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen in Syria reports.

With the Syrians rejecting the conditions of the initiative, the Arab League's roadmap is effectively in tatters, our correspondent says.

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Media captionJeremy Bowen met pro-Assad supporters at a demo in Damascus

Funerals for 11 people said to have been killed by security forces were attended by tens of thousands in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said - a day after battles between government troops and army defectors were reported in the area.

Meanwhile, authorities in the city of Homs told our correspondent that 11 soldiers had been killed in an ambush on Sunday, while a doctor at a military hospital in the embattled city said five dead soldiers had been brought in on Monday.

Activists say almost 1,000 people have been killed since the monitoring mission began in December.

'No military intervention'

At the Arab League meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal urged the international community to step in and put pressure on Damascus.

The meeting of Arab League foreign ministers called on President Assad to delegate power to one of his vice-presidents and to engage in proper dialogue with the opposition within two weeks, and form a government of national unity in two months.

It was not clear which vice-president, Farouk al-Shara or Najah al-Attar, the Arab League had in mind to assume power.

The league said this should eventually lead to multi-party elections overseen by international observers.

Qatar's Prime Minister, who is also foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said the league would seek the support of the UN Security Council for the changes.

But he added: "We're not talking about military intervention."

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Media captionMohammed al-Dabi, Arab League monitoring mission: Events in Syria are 'unacceptable'

Speaking before an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a Security Council resolution on Syria was overdue and it had been a mistake for China and Russia to have blocked a previous attempt at one.

The EU foreign ministers called on President Assad to "step aside immediately to allow for a peaceful and democratic transition".

They also agreed on new sanctions against 22 Syrian officials accused of human rights abuses and eight companies that financially support the Assad regime, hitting them with travel bans and a freeze of assets.

Existing EU sanctions include an arms embargo, a ban on the import of Syrian crude oil and a ban on new investment in the Syrian petroleum sector.

Russian business newspaper Kommersant reported that Syria had signed a deal in December to buy 36 Yak-130 combat jets from Russia, despite international efforts to isolate the Syrian government.

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