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Arabs to decide on Syria monitors early next month

By Ayman Samir and Edmund Blair

CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab ministers are expected to meet in early February to decide whether to withdraw a faltering monitoring mission in Syria, an Arab League official said on Saturday after an upsurge in violence prompted the pan-Arab body to suspend monitoring work.

The move to suspend monitoring came three days before Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby is due to meet the U.N. Security Council in New York to seek its support for an Arab plan that calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

Alongside a monitoring report citing a rise in violence, the League's decision could add pressure on Russia and China, two of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and which have resisted Western and Arab League calls for a tougher line.

A League official, who declined to be named, told Reuters that Arab foreign ministers were due to meet in the week starting February 5 to discuss whether to withdraw the mission permanently but added "the exact date is not fixed yet."

"Given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence ... it has been decided to immediately stop the work of the Arab League's mission to Syria pending presention of the issue to the League's council," Elaraby said in a statement.

Elaraby, the league's secretary-general, is scheduled to brief representatives of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday and held talks with Russia on Friday.

"Yesterday there was a call between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby regarding the latest developments in the Syrian situation," deputy secretary-general Ahmed Bin Hali told Reuters.

"The purpose of all the Arab League's international talks is to ensure enough support for the Arab plan regarding Syria which will be presented to the Security Council in the middle of this week," Bin Hali said.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said a European-Arab draft resolution on Syria circulated to the Security Council on Friday was unacceptable in parts, but Russia was ready to "engage" on it.

QATAR GROUP

A small group of Arab states led by Qatar has been appointed to follow up on Syria. But decisions to send monitors in the first place and to agree on Arab peace efforts have been taken by full meetings of Arab foreign ministers.

In his statement, Elaraby "asked the head of the (monitoring) mission to take all the necessary procedures to ensure the safety and well-being of the mission's members."

A senior Arab diplomat at the League told Reuters that secretary-general Elaraby had full powers to withdraw the monitors from Syria if he deemed it appropriate.

"According to the protocol signed with Syria, the Arab League secretary-general can withdraw the Arab monitors from Syria anytime if he deems that their lives are in danger or that continuing (the mission) is futile," he said.

Commenting on developments regarding the monitors as violence in Syria has continued unabated, the senior diplomat added this "confirms the futility of the mission's continuation and that the work of the monitors is fraught with dangers."

The monitors have faced criticism from the moment they began work in Syria in late December. Syria's opposition has said monitors were buying time for Assad and had failed to halt violence.

The head of the monitoring team, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, said on Friday that violence had escalated between January 24 and 27, a change in tone from a report he gave for the period

before that when he had said violence had dipped.

League officials have defended the mission, insisting it was sent to observe whether or not Syria was implementing an Arab peace plan and did not have the equipment or mandate to impose any peace deal.

The Arab plan originally included demands for Damascus to pull the military out of residential areas, free political prisoners and start dialogue with the opposition. But amid frustrations at lack of progress, Arab ministers agreed on January 22 an initiative that called for Assad to step aside.

The League has 22 members although Syria has been suspended. Arabs have also imposed sanctions on Damascus, although neighbouring states have not implemented them and others have voiced worries about the impact on ordinary Syrians.

The League and Western countries are pushing for a Security Council resolution on Syria, where the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the protests that began in March against Assad's rule.

(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by David Stamp)

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