UN suspends Syria mission, withdraws staff
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The UN said on Monday that it was suspending operations in Syria and withdrawing all “non-essential” staff members from the country due to growing security concerns. A quarter of the 100 staff currently in Damascus could leave within the week.
The United Nations on Monday suspended operations in Syria and began withdrawing non-essential staff as the brutal civil conflict raged and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was prompted to vow it would never use chemical weapons against its own people.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters the organisation was suspending its Syria missions indefinitely, amid fresh bloodshed in the war that has already claimed an estimated 41,000 lives since starting in March 2011.
The UN pullout coincided with the United States voicing concerns that Assad's forces might be weighing the use of chemical weapons.
US media reports earlier said the Syrian military had been detected moving the weapons around, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Monday their deployment would cross a "red line."
"We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime ... may be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people," White House spokesman Jay Carney added.
In televised remarks, a Syrian foreign ministry official said Syria would "never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons against its own people, if such weapons exist."
The latest developments at the United Nations came after Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Turkey that the NATO deployment of Patriot missiles along its border with Syria could exacerbate tensions.
He met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an Istanbul summit that failed to yield a common response to Syria's conflict.
Russia vehemently objects to Turkey's NATO request for the deployment of Patriot missiles as Assad's regime clings to power and suppresses a rebellion.
Moscow has warned that such a deployment could spark broader a conflict pulling in the Western military alliance. Putin underscored the point Monday, the eve of a NATO meeting in Brussels that is expected to decide on Ankara's request.
"As they say, if a gun is hung on the wall at the start of a play, then at the end of the play it will definitely fire," Putin said at a joint press conference with Erdogan.
"Why should we need extra shooting at the border? We are urging restraint."
Though Turkey and Russia have growing trade and energy links, they remain at loggerheads over Syria.
Moscow is a staunch ally of Damascus, routinely blocking resolutions against Assad's regime at the UN Security Council, while Ankara's relationship with its neighbour has collapsed over the conflict and a series of cross-border shellings and other incidents.
Turkish tensions with Russia came to a head in October when Turkey intercepted a Syrian plane flying from Moscow to Damascus on suspicion that it had military cargo, drawing an angry response from Russia, which said it was carrying non-restricted radar equipment.
Some 120,000 refugees have streamed across the border into Turkey, with many more seeking safety in other neighbouring countries.
Putin said Russia is not necessarily a supporter of the Syrian regime but was concerned about how it would be replaced.
"We are not inveterate defenders of the current regime in Syria," Putin was quoted as saying by Russian state television.
"Other things worry us, like what will happen in the future?"
In an exclusive interview with AFP, meanwhile, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said Assad's regime was in danger of collapse "anytime" as the opposition made political and military headway.
"Facts on the ground indicate very clearly now that the Syrian opposition is gaining, politically and militarily. Every day they are gaining something," Arabi said.
In another blow to the Assad regime, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi, a prominant advocate of the president, was reported to have quit.
Arabi's statement came as fighting continued to rock Damascus and other parts of Syria.
An air strike Monday killed at least 12 people -- eight rebels and four civilians -- and wounded more than 30 in the rebel-held northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The monitoring group, which relies on a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals, said 86 people -- including 32 civilians, 32 rebels and 22 troops -- were killed Monday as Syrian troops battered rebel positions in and around Damascus.
Analysts say Assad's forces want to secure Damascus to let the regime negotiate a way out of the conflict that the Observatory says has cost more than 41,000 lives in almost 21 months.
In central Syria, the Britain-based Observatory also reported clashes with rebels since Sunday in the central city of Hama, prompting authorities to send in reinforcements.