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Violence keeps Syria on edge, Arab mission in doubt

By Reuters
Friday, January 20, 2012 7:24 EDT
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Neighborhood abandoned in Syrian unrest via AFP
 
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AMMAN (Reuters) – Scattered violence broke out on Friday in Syria, where Arab peace monitors have completed a month-long mission, ahead of Muslim prayers that are often followed by demonstrations for and against President Bashar al-Assad.

Security forces prevented prayers at the Omari mosque in the southern town of Deraa, cradle of a 10-month-old anti-Assad revolt, for the fifth Friday in a row, activists said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a heavy security presence around mosques in the port city of Latakia and said shooting had erupted in several other restive towns.

The British-based group said a security officer had been assassinated in Deraa, possibly because he had changed sides. In the northwestern province of Idlib, security forces returned the bodies of six people who had disappeared two days earlier.

It was not possible to verify the latest accounts of unrest in Syria, where tight media restrictions are enforced.

Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, head of the monitoring mission, was expected to fly to Cairo, headquarters of the Arab League, on Saturday to report on what his 165 members have witnessed since they deployed in Syria on December 26.

Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Sunday to decide whether to prolong or end a mission whose critics say it has only provided diplomatic cover for Assad to pursue a crackdown that has already killed more then 5,000 people by a U.N. count.

Hundreds of people have been killed since the monitors arrived in Syria, where an armed insurgency has grown in recent months, contesting Assad’s grip on several parts of the country.

MONITORS’ REPORT

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the League should publish the monitors’ report in full and should urge the U.N. Security Council to impose targeted sanctions, including an arms embargo, to stop the killing in Syria.

“The Arab League should make its monitors’ report public to address increasing concerns that its monitoring mission is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director. “Only a transparent assessment of the monitoring mission can determine whether the monitors should stay in the country.”

The Syrian authorities accuse foreign-backed “terrorists” of killing 2,000 members of the security forces since the unrest began in March, inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere.

The Security Council has been paralyzed by divisions over Syria, with Russia and China opposing any tough action.

Western sanctions on Syrian oil exports have cost the country $2 billion since September, the state news agency SANA quoted Oil Minister Sufian Alao as saying.

Alao said Syria was still trying to replace European Union crude oil contracts with new customers, but was having trouble securing shipping insurance and trade credit.

The EU, which bought most of Syria’s approximately 130,000 barrels per day of oil exports, imposed sanctions on Syrian oil on September 2, following a similar decision by the United States.

EU governments are expected on Monday to expand a Syria sanctions list against individuals, companies and institutions.

Alao also said attacks on oil and gas pipelines and other energy installations had killed 21 workers, disrupted supplies and caused damage estimated at 2 billion pounds ($34 million).

Syria plans to introduce a managed float of its exchange rate, effectively devaluing the currency, its central bank governor Adib Mayaleh told the Financial Times on Friday.

Sanctions and months of instability have driven the value of the Syrian pound down by a third on the black market, exchange dealers said on Thursday.

The Arab League suspended Syria and announced sanctions for its failure to comply with a November peace plan which required that it halt the bloodshed, withdraw military forces from the streets, free detainees, provide access to Arab monitors and the media, and open a political dialogue with opposition groups.

(Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alison Williams)

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