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Head of Arab League monitors in Syria defends mission, says violence has abated
CAIRO (AP) ' The head of the Arab League's observation team to Syria has struck back at critics who say the mission has failed to stop violence between security forces and opposition groups seeking to oust President Bashar Assad.
Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi told reporters in Cairo Monday that the mission's job was to never to stop the violence, but to document progress on the League's peace plan.
Al-Dabi, a Sudanese army general who has been accused of war crimes, defended the mission. He says that since its start, violence has gone down, prisoners have been released and some protests have been allowed to proceed peacefully.
The Arab League on Sunday extended the observer mission for another month and presented a new initiative aimed at ending the crisis ' which Syria's government rejected.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syria rejected the Arab League's wide-ranging new plan to end the country's 10-month crisis Monday, saying the League's call for a national unity government in two months is a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty.
The state-run news agency, SANA, said Damascus considers the plan "flagrant interference in its internal affairs" and the latest turn in an international plot against Syria.
President Bashar Assad blames the uprising that erupted in March on terrorists and armed gangs acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country. His regime has retaliated with a crackdown that the U.N. says has killed more than 5,400 people.
The Arab League has tried to stem the bloodshed by condemning the crackdown, imposing sanctions and sending a team of observers in to the country. On Sunday, the League called for a unity government within two months, which would then prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held under Arab and international supervision.
It also provides for Assad to give his vice president full powers to cooperate with the proposed government to enable it to carry out its duties during a transitional period.
The League called on Syria's government to release political detainees, allow peaceful demonstrations and pull the military out of cities and residential areas.
The European Union backed the Arab plan Monday, and it extended existing sanctions against Assad's government by adding 22 more officials and eight companies to the blacklist.
Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council opposition group, said the Arab efforts do not go far enough. He and many other opposition figures demand Assad leave power and say anything less will just give the regime time to bury the revolution.
But there are significant splits in the opposition about the way forward.
Hassan Abdul-Azim, who heads the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, or NCB, said the Arab plan is an "advanced step as the Arab League has started dealing with matters more seriously."
Abdul-Azim told The Associated Press that the plan would put more pressure on the Syrian regime and "tells it that it's impossible to keep matters as they are."
Syria appeared to get a serious boost Monday from its powerful allies in Russia. Russia's business daily Kommersant reported that Moscow has signed a contract to sell 36 Yak-130 combat jets to Syria ' a deal that, if confirmed, would openly defy international efforts to pressure Assad's regime.
Violence, meanwhile, continued inside Syria.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops and army defectors clashed Monday near the western town of Qusair, close to the Lebanese border. It said five soldiers were killed and 13 were wounded.
The reports could not be confirmed.
Syria has prevented most independent media coverage and until recently has refused to issue visas for most foreign journalists. In recent weeks, the regime has begun to permit entry for journalists on trips escorted by government minders.
On Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers extended the much-criticized observers mission for another month, according to a statement from the 22-member organization.
The Arab League faced three options Sunday: ending the mission and giving up its initiative, extending it, or turning the crisis over to the U.N. Security Council, as some opposition groups have urged. There, however, it would face a possible stalemate because of disagreements among permanent members over how far to go in forcing Assad's hand.
The mission's one-month mandate technically expired on Thursday.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters that his country will pull out its observers because "the Syrian government did not implement the Arab plan." He urged Muslim countries, China, Russia, Europe and the U.S. to put pressure on Assad's government to stop the violence.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the harshest Arab critics of the crackdown, It recalled its ambassador from Damascus last year in protest.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue