CAIRO (AP) — Officials say Arab League foreign ministers will consider extending the League's observer mission in Syria in a meeting Sunday.
The one-month mission expired Thursday, but Adnan al-Khudeir, head of Cairo operations room that handles reports by the monitors, told The Associated Press that the League has extended it until after Sunday's meeting in Cairo.
Another Arab League official said the mission could be extended for another month.
Rejecting charges that the observers have been ineffective in reducing violence, he said extending the mission would help the oppostion more than the regime.
"The killings are less, the protests increase," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted last March.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government tanks and armored vehicles have pulled back from an embattled mountain town near Damascus, activists and witnesses said Thursday, but at least nine people were killed by security forces elsewhere as a monthlong Arab League fact-finding mission expired.
The pullback from Zabadani left the town under the control of the opposition, activists said. The besieged town of Zabadani has witnessed heavy exchanges of fire between army troops and anti-government military defectors over the past six days.
The 10-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has turned increasingly militarized and chaotic as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces. The capital has seen three suicide bombings since late December which the government blamed on terrorist extremists.
According to a protocol signed by the Syrian government, an Arab League observer mission ends Thursday but can be renewed for another month.
The mission has been mired in controversy, with the opposition claiming it served as a cover for the regime to continue its brutal crackdown against protesters.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland suggested that the observers' mission might not last indefinitely under the current circumstances.
"Despite the best efforts of the Arab League, despite the considerable risks that they've put their monitors to, it has not succeeded in getting the Assad regime to meet its commitments," she told reporters in Washington Wednesday.
Adnan al-Khudeir, head of the Cairo operations room to which the monitors report, said that the League will discuss Sunday whether or not to extend the mission.
Qatar's leader proposed this week sending Arab troops — rather than just observers — into the country to stop the mounting deaths, but Syria said it "absolutely rejects" such plans.
Al-Khudeir said a proposal to send troops is not on the weekend meeting's official agenda, but any Arab League member could raise it.
Activists reported continued violence Thursday. In Damascus, a Syrian security agent was wounded when a small explosive device tore through his car in the Tadamon neighborhood, a Syrian official said. No other damages were reported from the morning explosion, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give statements.
A military security brigadier, Adel Mustafa, also was killed by soldiers who had defected and refused his orders to shoot at civilians in the Bab Qibli area of Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists. The officer had previously overseen many killing and arrest operations, according to the LCC.
In Zabadani, activist Fares Mohammad said Syrian forces withdrew Wednesday night to two military barracks on the outskirts.
"There is a cautious calm, but fear of another major assault being prepared against Zabadani," he told The Associated Press by telephone from the resort town, located alongside the Lebanese border 17 miles (27 kilometers) west of Damascus.
The Syrian opposition has on several occasions throughout the uprising gained control of a town or city, but ultimately forces loyal to Assad retook them. It is unusual however for the army to take so long to recapture a town so close to the capital.
Mohammed said the siege had eased, although heating oil has not been allowed into the town, where it snowed earlier this week. Military checkpoints surrounding the Zabadani were still in place, he said, while about 100 armed defectors were "protecting" it.
Residents said government mortars had shelled the town on Wednesday, but that too had stopped.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the pullout from Zabadani, saying only two armored personnel carriers were left behind at one of the checkpoints near the town.
Syrian officials issued no comment about the fighting in Zabadani.
Activists said at least nine people were killed by security forces across Syria Thursday, including four activists who were ambushed in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region.