BEIRUT - The Arab League said on Saturday it had suspended its monitoring mission in Syria because of "the critical deterioration of the situation" as state security forces battled rebels holding three suburbs just outside Damascus.
The Arab League called last week for President Bashar al-Assad to step down after 10 months of revolt against his rule and will take its suggestion for an Arab peace plan to the U.N. Security Council next week.
"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 presentation of the issue to the league's council," Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement.
A delegate at the league said no date had yet been fixed for a meeting of the council on Syria.
A Syrian official said the government could not comment on the statement until it received confirmation of the suspension from the Arab League.
The mission's mandate was to observe implementation of a peace plan and had been extended for a second month.
Fighting raged outside three rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Saturday, activists said, expressing concern that the army was trying to prevent insurgents from solidifying a stronghold just 15 minutes outside the capital.
Activists told Reuters by telephone that some military forces were firing from tanks and had used anti-aircraft guns and mortars. They said fighting in the afternoon subsided into an exchange of gunfire between soldiers and insurgents who control the towns of Saqba, Kafr Batna and Jisreen.
Diplomatic pressure has so far failed to end Syria's crackdown on unrest it blames on foreign-backed militants.
What began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule last March has grown more violent as rebels, including army defectors, began fighting back.
The insurgents, who call themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA), agreed a truce last week for state forces to withdraw from the rebel-held town of Zabadani, 30 minutes from Damascus.
A video uploaded by activists, purported to be from a rebel-held Damascus suburb, showed smoke rising from behind a mosque and heavy gunfire erupted in the background as residents screamed "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)."
It was not possible to verify the video or many of the details from activists, as media access is restricted in Syria.
"I think they want to try to avoid another Zabadani situation here, so they hope to crush this. But there have been several army defections and we hope this will force them to negotiate," Abu Ishaq said on Skype from the town of Saqba.
The United Nations said in December that more than 5,000 people had been killed by Syrian forces. Syria says over 2,000 security forces have been killed by militants.
The state news agency SANA said "terrorist groups" killed seven soldiers, including an officer, on Saturday.
U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL
In the central city of Hama activists said they found the bodies of 17 men previously in security force custody, shot in the head. They said the killing took place during a military offensive on the town this week.
The Arab League and Western countries are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.
The Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution on Friday aimed at halting the bloodshed.
Russia, which joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October and which has since promoted its own draft, said the European-Arab version was unacceptable in its present form but said it was willing to "engage" on it.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow wanted a Syrian-led political process, not "an Arab League-imposed outcome of a political process that has not yet taken place" or Libyan-style "regime change.
The Arab League said it was in talks with Russia ahead of a Security Council meeting in New York. Britain and France said they hoped to put the draft resolution to a vote next week.
The prominent opposition Syrian National Council said it was joining the Arab League at its Security Council meeting to request "protection." The SNC has previously called for international forces to implement a no-fly zone in Syria.
Turkey, hosting a meeting with Gulf Arab foreign ministers on Saturday, urged Syria's leadership to comply with the Arab League transition plan which calls on Assad to step down.
Elsewhere in Syria, security forces firing mortars at the northeastern town of Quwaira killed an infant, activists said.
An oil pipeline was also set ablaze in the town at dawn, although it was not immediately clear if this was the work of saboteurs or the result of firing by security forces. The pipeline supplies crude oil to the Banias refinery.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops were battling rebels in the central town of Rastan near Homs and that security forces had killed a man in the southern province of Deraa and another at a checkpoint in Harasta, near Damascus.
Turkish officials say the number of Syrians seeking sanctuary in Turkey has risen in the past six weeks, with 50 to 60 arriving daily, taking the total living in refugee camps to nearly 9,600.
More than 6,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon.
Turkey, which spent years rebuilding relations with Syria, turned against Assad after he ignored its advice to enact reforms to calm protests inspired by the "Arab Spring" revolts around the region. (Reuters)