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New York Times

RANKOUS, Syria - The Arab League Saturday suspended its monitoring mission in Syria, saying a harsh new government crackdown made it too dangerous to proceed and was resulting in the deaths of innocent people across the country.

The head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, said in a statement Saturday that after discussions with Arab foreign ministers, the 22-member body had decided to suspend the monitors' mission in Syria because of "the continued use of violence." A final decision about the mission's future is due in the coming days.

He blamed the Syrian government for the bloodshed, saying that it had decided "to escalate the military option."

The suspension came after days of bloody civil conflict in cities across Syria, leading to criticism of the mission's effectiveness. The government has intensified its crackdown on restive communities, shelling neighborhoods and firing on protests, according to opposition activists. At the same time, armed groups have seized territory on the doorstep of the capital, resulting in a series of deadly clashes that are presenting the most serious threat to the government's power, escalating a 10-month-old uprising that began as peaceful demonstrations.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of opposition militias, said that more than 100 soldiers defected Saturday, bringing three tanks with them. That statement could not be independently confirmed.

Clashes were also reported in the central province of Homs. And in Hama, a city in central Syria, the bodies of 17 men previously arrested by security forces were found shot in the head.

The state news agency SANA said that "terrorists" killed seven soldiers Saturday, including an officer in a suburb of the capital.

The suspension came a week after the Arab League called on President Bashar Assad to step down and said it was going to take an Arab peace proposal to the U.N. Security Council. That plan would have Assad hand power to a vice president while an interim government was formed. Al-Arabi and other Arab League officials were traveling to New York Saturday in preparation to meet with U.N. officials.

Tunisians decry extremist group

More than 8,000 Tunisians marched Saturday through the capital, Tunis, denouncing violence committed by ultraconservative Islamist groups. "We got rid of totalitarianism, and we don't want it back," read a banner carried by demonstrators in the rally. Since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's secular dictatorship in a popular uprising a year ago, small groups of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists have risen in Tunisia calling for greater piety, attacking unveiled women and secular intellectuals and occupying universities. Several hundred Islamists also held a counter-protest Saturday.

Yemen president in U.S.: Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived Saturday in the United States for medical treatment for burns he suffered during an assassination attempt in June, according to Yemen's foreign press office.

Associated Press