Arab ministers urge Syria to open up to UN monitors


Arab League ministers met U.N.-Arab special envoy Kofi Annan and pressed Syria to cooperate fully with his peace mission, first by providing unfettered access to ceasefire monitors.

A six-day-old truce has held in some areas of Syria but fighting has persisted in others since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to honour it last week. A small U.N. observer mission went to the country this week to monitor the ceasefire.

A statement issued after the Arab League meeting with Annan in Qatar said: “We request the Syrian government to help observers do their job and allow transport and the ability to reach all areas in Syria, and not to impose conditions on them that prevent them from doing their job.”

Annan delivered a status report to the League, which has suspended Syria as a member, and discussion focused on how to enhance the mission, according to a League delegate who declined to be named, Reuters reports.
“We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. “We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said during a visit to Luxembourg that the planned total of 250 observers would not be enough “considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.

He said the United Nations was asking the European Union to provide helicopters and planes to improve the monitors’ mobility and he would formally propose this idea to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.

It was not clear whether Assad would agree to allow more U.N. troops and foreign aircraft into the country. A political source in neighbouring Lebanon said Damascus had already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.
“Annan’s mission is a political one and therefore will take some time and require continuous pressure on the Syrian government as well as support of the permanent members of the Security Council,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said.

Annan will submit a report to the Security Council on Thursday, the League statement said.

His peace plan calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists. It does not hinge on Assad leaving office.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria’s powerful, Russian-armed forces. But other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war threatening the wider region.
“Self-defense is a legitimate right. If you ask us in Qatar, have we armed the opposition, our reply is no, we have not. We are hopeful Mr Annan’s plan will work. We must help the Syrian people defend themselves,” said Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad.

The Arab League wants a meeting uniting all members of the Syrian opposition before the end of April, the statement said.