Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby headed to New York on Sunday seeking to win support from the UN Security Council for a plan to end months of violence in Syria by asking President Bashar Assad to step aside.
Elaraby will brief the Security Council on Tuesday. The Arab initiative, which is backed by Western states, is facing resistance from Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the council with veto powers.
Elaraby, the league's secretary-general, will be joined in New York by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the league's committee charged with following Syrian developments. Qatar and fellow Gulf Arab state Saudi Arabia have been leading efforts to put pressure on Assad.
"We will hold several meetings with representatives from members of the Security Council to obtain the council's support and agreement to the Arab initiative," Elaraby told reporters at Cairo airport shortly before leaving for New York.
Asked about China and Russia's reluctance to take new steps over Syria, Elaraby said he hoped the two nations would change their position. "There are contacts with China and Russia on this issue," he said.
He also said Arab monitors, whose work was suspended on Saturday after an escalation of violence, had gathered in Damascus and would not leave the Syrian capital until their status was decided following the withdrawal of Gulf observers from the team.
Arab foreign ministers will meet on February 5 to discuss the Syria crisis, senior Arab League officials said. The ministers are expected to discuss whether or not to permanently withdraw the mission from Syria, where thousands of people have been killed in a 10-month uprising against Assad's rule.
Syria, which said it was surprised by the decision to suspend the work of the monitors, described the move as a bid to influence the Security Council and increase pressure for foreign intervention.
The Arab plan initially included demands for Damascus to pull the military out of residential areas, free political prisoners and start dialogue with the opposition. But Arab ministers, frustrated at the lack of progress, agreed on January 22 to an initiative that called for Assad to step aside.
Meanwhile, the Syrian military launched a new offensive on Sunday to regain control of suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus, storming neighborhoods and clashing with groups of army defectors in fierce fighting that sent residents fleeing and killed at least three civilians, opposition activists said.
According to activists, government forces dispatched dozens of tanks and armored vehicles to reinforce troops in a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus where armed defectors have grown increasingly bold, staking out positions and setting up checkpoints in recent days.
The area on Saturday witnessed some of the most intense fighting yet so close to the capital as President Bashar Assad's regime scrambled to try to uproot protesters and dissident soldiers who have joined the opposition.
The ten-month uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has become increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms against the regime.
The assault on the suburbs seemed to be a sign of the growing presence of dissident soldiers closer to Damascus, and the regime's rising concern about the situation. Although the tightly controlled capital has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its outskirts have witnessed intense anti-regime protests in the past few months.
The military has responded with a withering assault on a string of Damascus suburbs in a bid to stamp out the resistance, leading to a spike in violence that has killed nearly 100 people since Thursday.
Six government soldiers were also killed on Sunday when a roadside bomb detonated near the bus they were traveling in several miles south of the capital.
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