The Arab League on Thursday suspended its monitoring mission in Syria because of the upsurge of violence a day after the monitors’ chief said killing had spiked this week, with the death toll approaching 200.
“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 prevention of the issue to the league’s council,” the league’s secretary-general said in a statement.
“The secretary-general has also asked the head of the mission to take all the necessary procedures to ensure the safety and well-being of the mission’s members.”
The mission would remain in Syria, a source at the league had earlier told Reuters, but would temporarily halt its work.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, meanwhile, said that the authorities in were determined to “cleanse” the country of outlaws and restore order, according to state news agency SANA.
“The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws ... to restore safety and security,” he said at a ceremony in honor of fallen soldiers.
The Arab League’s announcement came as the opposition Syrian National Council said its leader would travel to New York to appeal to the U.N. Security Council for protection from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
SNC chief Burhan Ghaliun’s trip comes amid a new bid by Arab and European states for U.N. action over the deadly 11-month crackdown on dissent hit immediate opposition from staunch Syrian ally Russia.
The violence “does not help... to get all sides to sit at the negotiating table,” head of Arab league mission in Syria General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi said.
According to a tally by AFP taken from reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and official Syrian media, 193 people have been killed since Tuesday.
That compares with the figure of more than 5,400 given by the United Nations last month since anti-regime protests erupted in March.
On Thursday, the bodies of 17 men arrested by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces during an armored assault this week on the city of Hama were found dumped in the streets after being shot in the head, activists said on Saturday.
“They were killed execution style, mostly with one bullet to the head. Iron chains that had tied them were left on their legs as a message to the people to stop resisting,” Abu al-Walid, an activist in the city, told Reuters by telephone.
Another activist said the bodies, their hands tied by plastic wire and some with their legs chained, were dumped in the streets of five Hama neighborhoods on Thursday evening.
“They are of mixed ages. One was in his 60s, another in his 40s and several were in their 20s,” he said, adding that only three had been identified, one of whom was a police deserter.
“They (Assad’s forces) seem to have dumped the bodies of people from one neighborhood in a completely different one, making it difficult to know who they are,” he said.
Asked whether the bodies could be those of Assad loyalists killed by rebels, the activist said this was not possible.
“Hama is a military zone full of armored vehicles and troops,” he said.
“Roadblocks and tanks have isolated districts from each other. The streets are empty and no one dares to drive a car unless he wants to be shot, let alone to move between different neighborhoods and dump bodies.”
There was no comment from the Syrian authorities, who tightly restrict independent media access to the country.
A YouTube video, which could not be independently verified, showed six bodies of mostly young men in a street described as being in the Bab Qabli district of Hama. Their hands were tied and their legs were chained. They appeared to have died from gunshot wounds to the head or neck.
Other bodies were found in the Basateen, Hamidiya, Arbaeen and Masbah neighborhoods, activists said.
Hundreds of people have been detained, mostly from the anti-Assad strongholds of Bab Qabli and Hamidiya, on opposite sides of the Orontes river, since security forces launched an offensive against Hama, a city of 600,000, on Wednesday.
“Families who fled Hamidiya to other parts of the city last night report seeing bodies on the streets. We don’t have the names but at least 15 people were killed from bombardment on Hamidiya yesterday,” one resident of the district said.
He said he had been hit by shrapnel in his shoulder and back from a mortar round that struck his house, adding that elite Republican Guard units were spearheading the offensive.
It was the third major attack on Hama since August, when tanks entered the city, scene of some of the biggest protests against Assad since a popular uprising began in March.
At least 30 people have been killed there in the past three days by mortar and heavy machinegun fire as security forces try to dislodge insurgents from parts of the city, activists said.
In 1982, Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, crushed an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, killing many thousands of people and razing the old part of the city.
Clashes in Rastan
Meanwhile, Syrian soldiers clashed with deserters on Saturday in the restive central town of Rastan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Violent clashes are under way in the city of Rastan,” pitting the army and the regime's security forces against groups of deserters, the Britain-based Watchdog said in a statement received in Nicosia.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
The regime's forces used heavy weapons, and explosions were heard in the city 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of the capital Damascus, the Observatory said.
Rastan saw similar fighting in late September when it was the focal point of a military crackdown that killed dozens of people, activists said at the time.
In a September 30 statement, deserters said they had withdrawn from Rastan because of massive reinforcements by security forces and gangs loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“We decided to withdraw in order to continue the struggle for freedom,” they wrote.
Damascus does not recognize the scale of the protest movement that erupted in mid-March, insisting instead that it is fighting “terrorist groups” seeking to sow chaos in the country as part of a foreign-hatched conspiracy.