Arab League considers withdrawing monitors from Syria

Pan-Arab organization says violence continues in Syria

Britain reportedly weighing secret plan with NATO to impose no-fly zone over Syria

Ban Ki-moon to visit Lebanon to attend conference on democratic transformation in Middle East

The Arab League has called for an emergency meeting to discuss whether to withdraw the group's monitors from Syria after reports that Syrian security forces are still killing anti-government protesters despite the observers' presence.

Deputy secretary-general, Ahmed bin Heli, said on Tuesday that the meeting will take place Saturday in Cairo.

There are about 100 Arab League monitors in Syria, dispatched to verify the regime's compliance with a plan to stop its crackdown on dissent.

On Monday, Syria's government withdrew heavy weapons from inside cities and freed about 3,500 prisoners.

However, the Arab League chief said security forces continue to kill protesters even with foreign monitors in the country. Nabil Elaraby said pro-regime snipers also continue to operate in Syria and he demanded a complete cease-fire. But despite the regime's ongoing crackdown, he listed the achievements of the Arab League monitors since they began work.

The monitors are supposed to verify Syria's compliance with an Arab League plan to stop the 9-month-old crackdown on dissent.

President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the plan on Dec. 19. But since the Arab League monitors began work last Tuesday, activists say government forces have killed more than 150 people, the vast majority of them unarmed, peaceful protesters.

"Yes, there is still shooting and yes there are still snipers," Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo, where the Arab League is based. "Yes, killings continue. The objective is for us to wake up in the morning and hear that no one is killed. The mission's philosophy is to protect civilians, so if one is killed, then our mission is incomplete."

"There must be a complete cease-fire," Elaraby said. But he also said tanks and artillery have been pulled out from cities and residential neighborhood, food supplies reached residents and bodies of dead protesters recovered.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that tanks had withdrawn from Syrian cities. But he said residents reported that the weapons were still a threat.

"They can bring the tanks back and use them to fight," Abdul-Rahman told The Associated Press.

Elaraby did not say when the heavy weapons pulled out of cities, but Abdul-Rahman said it was on Thursday.

The Arab League plan requires Assad's regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders, free political prisoners and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country.

Already, Syrian opposition groups and a pan-Arab group, the Arab Parliament, have been deeply critical of the mission, saying it is simply giving Assad cover for his crackdown.

Suggesting that the League did not have a figure for the number of Syrians detained since the uprising began, Elaraby called on the opposition and ordinary Syrians to aid the observers by sending them names of relatives or friends they think are detained by Assad's regime.

He did not say whether the League was able to verify the release of 3,484 prisoners or when they left prison.

"We call for the release of all of them," he said.

Elaraby defended the Sudanese general heading the Arab League mission in Syria, saying he was doing his job perfectly. "He is a capable military man with a clean reputation."

Controversy has swirled around Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Amnesty International said al-Dabi led al-Bashir's military intelligence service until August 1995, when he was appointed head of external security.

"During the early 1990s, the military intelligence in Sudan was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan," it said in a statement.

"The Arab League's decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League's efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission's credibility," Amnesty said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has launched its official website, www.syriancouncil.org, the government opposition group announced Wednesday.

“This development marks another milestone as the SNC enhances its media and public relations efforts to ensure that information about the Syrian revolution and the SNC’s progress are communicated quickly and efficiently,” the group said in a statement.

The SNC says its new website offers valuable information on its bureaus, and will feature articles, opinion pieces, and important announcements. The site will also highlight initiatives and programs the SNC is undertaking, “both as part of the current opposition movement and in the planning stages for Syria’s transition to a democratic, civil state.”

“The SNC continues to grow its capabilities, including our website,” Wael Merza, the SNC's secretary-general, said. “We are committed to maintaining open and transparent communications with our constituencies in Syria and abroad, and the website is one of several tools to achieve this goal. I encourage readers to freely contribute their opinions, suggestions, and feedback.”

On the other hand, A British security official has revealed that Britain's Ministry of Defense has been drawing up secret plots to secure a NATO-sponsored no-fly zone over Syria as intelligence agents from MI6 and the CIA are examining the situation on the ground in the country, reported the Daily Star.

“MI6 and the CIA are in Syria to infiltrate,” revealed the newspaper.

The revelations come as the Western media has launched a campaign to criticize the presence of the Arab League observers in Syria calling on them to return so that their governments would be able to draw up plots for military intervention based on fabricated evidence.

However, independent analysts have seriously questioned the West's media hype over the usefulness of the Arab League observers' presence in Syria, as they assert the West is using the Arab League as an NGO.

“[The Arab League] has been one of the most pathetic organizations in the Arab World for a long, long time, doing nothing on Palestine, doing nothing to prevent the war on Iraq. And, now it's being used as an NGO by the West,” said Tariq Ali, editor of London-based New Left Review.

Furthermore, Ali warned against the Western intervention in Syria saying “we need a negotiated settlement in Syria.”

“We do not want a Western intervention as in Libya which with each passing day the information coming out of Libya shows the disaster,” said Ali in an interview with Russia's English news channel Russia Today.

The Daily Star also reported that the Western intervention in Syria “is all going like Libya but this will be bigger and bloodier.”

Furthermore, the British newspaper revealed that the British government's “highest priority” while drawing up its secret plots would be Israel's security saying “Syria supports Hezbollah. That threatens Israel.”

Pointing out that Western intervention in Syria has already started, Ali said: “I don't know why they [foreign nations] seem reluctant to [acknowledging armed opposition extremists operating in Syria] because most the nations which seem reluctant to notice that are the ones who're supplying the weaponry.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Lebanon next week to meet with officials as well as members of the United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in the south of the country, a government official told AFP.

The official, who spoke on condition anonymity, said Ban’s three-day trip would start on Jan. 13.

The U.N. chief is to meet with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

On Jan. 15, Ban is also scheduled to give the opening remarks at a two-day U.N. conference in Beirut on reform and transition to democracy in the Arab world.

Ban’s visit to Lebanon comes amid concern over the safety of UNIFIL troops which have been the targets of several attacks in recent months.

The latest attack in December wounded five French peacekeepers.

UNIFIL was initially deployed in 1978 to oversee peace along the Israeli-Lebanese border but was boosted significantly following the devastating 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

It currently has about 13,500 troops and civilian staff.