CAIRO, (AFP) — Army defectors overran a protest hub near Damascus before pulling back, activists said on Sunday, ahead of an Arab League meeting to decide the future of its heavily criticised observer mission to Syria.
Fierce clashes erupted late Saturday in Douma, just northeast of the capital, after security forces shot dead four civilians at a funeral in the town, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Groups of deserters took control of all districts in the town of Douma, near Damascus, after fierce fighting on Saturday with Syrian security forces,” the Observatory’s chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“Dissident groups withdrew from the town and returned to their bases,” the Britain-based group said later in a statement, without giving any casualty toll for the operation.
The withdrawal was apparently prompted by fears of a full military assault, although Observatory spokeswoman Hivin Kako told BBC radio the only forces left in the town were police “which play a very basic role.”
At a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, the Arab League looked set to extend and expand its observer mission, despite strong criticism that it has failed to stem 10 months of deadly violence.
International pressure has been steadily growing on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with more than 5,400 people killed since anti-government protests broke out in March last year, according to UN figures.
The Arab League deployed observers in Syria for a one-month mission on December 26, and there are presently about 165 monitors on the ground in the unrest-swept country.
The Local Coordination Committees said in a statement on Sunday that 976 people have since been killed in the Assad regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent, despite their presence.
“One month since the Arab League observers entered Syria… this has changed nothing nor stopped the crime that the regime commits on the peaceful protesters,” said the LCC, which organise protests.
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, has appealed to the Arab League to turn the Syria crisis over to the United Nations.
Ahead of Sunday’s meeting, SNC chief Burhan Ghaliun met in Cairo with the bloc’s secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, and lobbied against extending the mission, SNC spokeswoman Basma Qadmani said.
But the Arab League was expected to extend its mission, even boosting observer numbers, after foreign ministers are briefed on Sunday on the mission’s first month in Syria.
An observer mission official, on condition of anonymity, has said its numbers would be almost doubled to 300.
Sunday’s report will be delivered by the mission’s chief, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi of Sudan, who believes his mandate needs to be strengthened, not scrapped, a League official said.
Deputy chief of operations Ali Jarush said Dabi is satisfied with its achievements so far and that “everything indicates the observer mission in Syria will be extended by a month.”
“Dabi sees that in the last phase the necessary thrust (of the operation) was achieved after more monitors were deployed and fanned across 20 areas and after they were provided with equipment and logistics,” he said.
But the SNC charged that Dabi’s report would not be credible.
Addressing journalists, Ghaliun said he told Arabi the conditions under which the observers were forced to work “do not allow it to present an objective report, reflecting the actual situation in Syria.”
The League’s staff were escorted around Syria by government troops.
Qatar has proposed that Arab troops be deployed in Syria, but Damascus rules out the proposal.
On the ground, the rebel Free Syrian Army, has said it fears government forces will launch an attack on Zabadani, a rebel-held town northeast of the capital.
On Saturday, a roadside bomb killed 17 detainees being transported in a prison truck in Idlib province in the northwest of the country, said the Observatory.
State news agency SANA said “an armed terrorist group” attacked the vehicle in Al-Mastouma area, “killing 14 prisoners and wounding 26 others.”
Nine government troops were killed in clashes with dissident soldiers near a military roadblock in the central city of Maaret Numan, the Observatory reported, citing a dissident. One deserter was also killed in the clash.
Security forces also killed three members of a “terrorist group” on Friday night as they tried to infiltrate the Tal Kala area from neighbouring Lebanon, SANA said.
On Syria’s maritime border with Lebanon, a 14-year-old Lebanese boy was shot and fatally wounded after gunmen opened fire on a fishing boat, his father and a local official told AFP.