(Adds Syrian foreign minister comments)
* Syria ignores League deadline to end unrest crackdown
* Seventeen more people killed as deadline expires
* Rocket-propelled grenades hit ruling Baath party site in Damascus
* Syria will not bow down, says Assad
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Nov 20 (Reuters) - The Arab League said on Sunday it had rebuffed a request by Damascus to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission to Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to continue his crackdown and said he would not surrender to outside pressure.
Within hours of Assad ignoring a deadline to halt repression of protesters, residents said two rocket-propelled grenades hit a major ruling party building in Damascus on Sunday, the first such reported attack by insurgents inside the capital.
Confronted since March by street demonstrations against 41 years of rule by his family, Assad said he had no choice but to pursue his crackdown on unrest because his foes were armed.
“The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue. Syria will not bow down,” he told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby rejected Syria’s request to alter a plan for the fact-finding mission — which would include military personnel and human rights experts — in a letter to Syria’s foreign minister.
“The additions requested by the Syrian counterpart affect the heart of the protocol and fundamentally change the nature of the mission,” said the letter, released by the Arab League.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the plan as it stood compromised the country’s sovereignty but Damascus had not rejected the mission
Moualem said the proposed mission has “pervasive jurisdiction that reaches the level of ... violating Syrian sovereignty” and said he would send the Arab League a letter with questions about its role.
“We will reply to the Arab League secretary general by responsibly presenting a number of queries,” he told a televised news conference in the Syrian capital.
The Cairo-based League had given Damascus three days from a meeting on Nov. 16 to abide by a deal to withdraw military forces from restive cities, start talks between the government and opposition and pave the way for an observer team.
It was not immediately clear what action the Arab League would take after the deadline passed unheeded by Damascus. The pan-Arab body had threatened sanctions for non-compliance, and it suspended Syria’s membership in a surprise move last week.
“Although the time-frame has ended, there have been no meetings or calls for meetings except at the level of delegations (to the League),” a representative of one Arab state at the League told Reuters.
In a statement, the League said it remained committed to a peaceful, Arab-engineered solution to the Syrian upheaval, touched off by other Arab popular revolts that have overthrown the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this year.
Syrian authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed groups which they say have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police. By a United Nations account, more than 3,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the unrest.
Assad signalled no retreat from his iron fist policy in a video released after his forces killed 17 more protesters on Saturday.
“The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighbouring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order,” he said in footage published on the Sunday Times website.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops manning roadblocks in Homs fired on residential areas and wounded three protesters. In the nearby town of Talbiseh, security forces delivered the bodies of two men arrested last month and in Idlib another two civilians were killed in military operations, the British-based group said.
Assad said there would be elections in February or March when Syrians would vote for a parliament to create a new constitution and that would include provision for a presidential ballot.
The Syrian Free Army, comprising army defectors and based in neighbouring Turkey, claimed responsibility for the attack on the Baath Party building in Damascus.
There was no independent verification of the claim and Moualem denied that any attack had taken place. But a witness said security police blocked off the square where the building is located and reported seeing smoke rising from it and fire trucks in the area.
“The attack was just before dawn and the building was mostly empty. It seems to have been intended as a message to the regime,” he said.
Syrian authorities have barred most independent journalists from entering the country during the revolt, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
It was the second reported hit on a high profile target in a week, underscoring a growing opposition challenge to Assad - who blames “armed terrorist acts” for the unrest - from a nascent insurgency alongside mostly peaceful protests that have persisted despite the intensifying crackdown.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is a member of the Alawite minority community, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that dominates the state, the army and security apparatus in the majority Sunni Muslim country of 20 million.
The Syrian Free Army said the grenade attack was a response to the refusal of Damascus to release tens of thousands of political prisoners and return troops to barracks, as called for by the plan agreed between the Arab League and Damascus.
NO-FLY, BUFFER ZONES?
Non-Arab Turkey, once an ally of Assad, is also taking an increasingly tough attitude to Damascus.
Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighbouring Syria if the bloodshed worsens.
“It’s almost certain that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is going down, all the assessments are made based on this assumption. Foreign Ministry sources say that the sooner the regime goes down, the better for Turkey,” one Turkish paper reported.
Activists in the central city of Homs said the body of Farzat Jarban, an activist who had been filming and broadcasting pro-democracy rallies there, was found dumped near a private hospital on Saturday with two bullet wounds.
“Security police are no longer just shooting protesters, they are targeting activists when they least suspect it, such as when they take their children to school,” said a doctor from Homs who has fled to Jordan.
Tanks and troops deployed in Homs after large anti-Assad protests six months ago. The authorities say they have since arrested tens of “terrorists” in the city who have been killing civilians and planting bombs in public places.
Moualem said the West and some Arab countries were ignoring the actions of armed gangs in Syria who had been killing people “according to their identity cards”, referring to growing reports of sectarian killings between majority Sunni Muslims and Assad’s Alawite community in Homs.
But he dismissed fears that the country might be heading towards civil conflict. “There will not be a civil war, however hard they try to ignite it.”
Dissident colonel Riad al-Asaad, organising defectors in Syria from his new base in southern Turkey, denied government allegations that adjacent states were allowing arms smuggling into Syria. “Not a single bullet” had been smuggled from abroad, he told al Jazeera television.
Weapons were brought by defectors, obtained in raids on the regular army or bought from arms dealers inside Syria, he said.
Asaad said no foreign military intervention was needed other than providing a no-fly zone and weapons supplies, and that more deserters would swell his Free Syrian Army’s ranks if there were protected zones to which they could flee.
“Soldiers and officers in the army are waiting for the right opportunity,” he told al Jazeera. (Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Dina Zayed, Ayman Samir and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Editing by Dominic Evans and Jon Boyle)