The Arab League announced suspension of its monitoring mission in Syria allegedly to pave the way for foreign intervention after violence by security forces killed at least 98 people Saturday.
"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," Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi said in a statement Saturday.
The Syrian army's violence on Saturday was an effort to control rebels who seized three Damascus suburbs this week.
Nabil el-Arabi asked the mission's chief, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ahmad al-Dabi, "to take all the necessary to ensure the safety of all members of the mission."
Arab League foreign ministers are expected to discuss early next month the possibility of withdrawing monitors completely, according to Reuters.
The 22-member mission began on Dec. 26 to monitor compliance by Damascus with the Arab League's plan to end violence against civilians, and President Bashar al-Assad's government had on Tuesday given it a one-month extension. Some estimates suggest that over 200 people had been killed since the extension was granted, putting a question mark over the authority of the mission.
However, Syria TV quoted an official as saying that the Syrian government was "surprised" by the decision, and that it was directed at putting pressure on U.N. Security Council deliberations to demand foreign intervention and "encouraging armed groups to increase violence."
France, which is in favor of stronger international action on Syria, said the league's move underlined the need to act. "France vigorously condemns the dramatic escalation of violence in Syria, which has led the Arab League to suspend its observers' mission in Syria," a foreign ministry statement said. "Dozens of Syrian civilians have been killed in the past days by the savage repression taken by the Syrian regime, notably by massive military operations against opponents' neighborhoods in several cities. Those responsible for these barbarous acts must answer to their crimes."
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has called for protests by the Syrian diaspora outside diplomatic missions of Russia across the world. Moscow is an ally of President al-Assad and is likely to oppose any resolution against his government at the Security Council.
According to the U.N., over 5,000 people have been killed since protests against the government began last March.