Russia has criticized a decision by the Arab League to suspend its monitoring mission to Syria amid heavy clashes reported near Damascus between government troops and army deserters who support antigovernment protesters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Brunei that he would instead support an increased number of Arab League observers. Lavrov also said Moscow is surprised by a suspension of the observer's mission so shortly after the Arab League requested and obtained a one-month extension of the monitoring mission.
Meanwhile, Arab League foreign ministers have scheduled a meeting for February 5 to decide whether to withdraw their monitoring mission from Syria completely. The Arab League on January 28 announced that the activities of about 100 monitors still in Syria had been stopped with immediate effect.
Syria responded by saying it was "surprised" and "regrets" the Arab League's decision. Syria's official news agency, SANA, said the mission's suspension was an attempt to influence the United Nations Security Council and increase "pressure for foreign intervention in Syrian affairs."
Meanwhile, reports from Syria
say at least 16 soldiers and three civilians werekilled on January 29 in continued clashes around the country between government troops and deserters. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 10 soldiers were killed when their military convoy was attacked at Kansafra in the Jebel Al-Zuwiya area of northwestern Syria. The group says three civilians also were killed amid fierce fighting between regime troops and rebel troops in the Ghuta area about 10 kilometers from Damascus.
Fighting in Ghuta on January 28 reportedly left 17 dead -- 11 soldiers and six civilians.
Meanwhile, Syria's official SANA news agency says six soldiers, including two officers, were killed on January 29 when their bus was targeted by "armed terrorists" near the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya.
Earlier this month, Arab League member Qatar suggested sending Arab troops to Syria to stop violent crackdown by Syrian security forces against the 11-month-old uprising -- and to try to quell fighting between security forces and army defectors that appears to be escalating.
The United Nations says more than 5,400 people have been killed in the last 11 months, and that violence has increased to the point where it can no longer keep track of the death toll.
On January 27, several Arab countries submitted to the UN Security Council a draft resolution based on an Arab League proposal that would have President Bashar al-Assad step down in favor of his deputy and a unity government formed.
That plan has been opposed by Russia, which has proposed its own draft resolution that assigns equal blame for the violence on both Assad's troops and the opposition.
Western governments have dismissed that option.
The opposition Syrian National Council has called for the Syrian diaspora to rally outside Russian diplomatic missions around the world on January 29 in protest against Moscow's opposition to the draft UN resolution submitted by Arab countries.
Russia has close trade ties with Assad's regime -- including a military jet delivery contract with Damascus that was signed earlier this month and the continued leasing of a Syrian port for use as a Russian naval base.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels say they have detained a total of seven Iranians. A commander of the dissident Syrian Free Army, Malek al-Kurdi, says the Iranians were arrested in the flashpoint city of Homs and that five are military experts from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The Iranian state news Agency IRNA reported on January 26 that 11 religious pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria, which also is a close ally of Tehran.
compiled from agency reports