Video: Inside Syria: the untold story

msnbc.com news services
updated 1/23/2012 2:49:02 AM ET 2012-01-23T07:49:02

Syria rejected on Monday a request by Arab League foreign ministers that President Bashar Assad hand over power to a deputy and set up a new unity government, saying the plan was part of a "conspiracy against Syria."

"Syria rejects the decisions of the Arab League ministerial council ... and considers them a violation of its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in its internal affairs," state news agency SANA quoted an official source as saying.

The statement did not mention the ministers' decision to extend the mission of Arab League observers, who have faced criticism over their failure to stem the bloodshed in Syria since they first deployed last month.

Video: Critics: Mission to halt Syria violence a failure (on this page)

Arab foreign ministers called on Assad on Sunday to hand over to a deputy and set up a new unity government, as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Assad has faced more than 10 months of protests against his rule and a growing armed rebellion. The United Nations says 5,000 people have been killed in the security crackdown. The authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed armed "terrorists" who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.

"Syria condemns this decision which is part of the conspiracy against Syria," the official source said, saying that instead of cutting off the flow of money and weapons to "terrorist groups" in Syria, the ministers were issuing "inflammatory statements."

The source criticized the Arab League for ignoring reforms which Assad has promised, including a referendum on a new constitution, and which were lacking "in many of the Arab states leading the hostile campaign against Syria."

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported that a clash between Syrian forces and army defectors erupted Sunday in a suburb of the tightly held capital of Damascus.

SANA also said an estimated 5,255 Syrian prisoners have been released over the past week under an amnesty, raising the total freed since November to more than 9,000. Opposition groups say thousands are still being held.

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria as the bloodshed escalates. The U.S. has long called for Assad to step down, and officials say his regime's demise is inevitable.

Two U.S. Senators plan to introduce a bill to stiffen the sanctions.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York would require President Barack Obama to identify violators of human rights in Syria, call for reform and offer protection to pro-democracy demonstrators. It would also block financial aid and property transactions in the United States involving Syrian leaders involved in the crackdown.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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