Syria calls for Arab League meet to avert suspension

Reuters , Sunday 13 Nov 2011

In an attempt to thwart its decision to suspend Syria membership, Damascus requested an urgent high level Arab summit, while thousands of pro-Assad regime attacked the Saudi and Turkish embassies in the capital

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gather in Hula, near Homs (Reuters)

Syria called on Sunday for an emergency summit of Arab League heads of state, in an apparent attempt to thwart its decision to suspend Damascus for violently cracking down on protests.

But a day after the League suspended Syria and said it would impose sanctions, its secretary general said officials from the 22-member organisation of Arab states would also meet Syrian opposition representatives, a further blow to Damascus.

Syrian state television said the objective of its proposed summit would be to discuss the "negative repercussions on the Arab situation".

The Arab League's suspension of Syria's membership takes effect on Nov. 16. Syria's call for an emergency summit appears to be an attempt to avert that decision.

It was the Arab League's decision to suspend Libya's membership of the group that helped persuade the U.N. Security Council to back a NATO air campaign aiding revolutionaries who eventually ousted and killed Muammar Gaddafi.

The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in the pro-democracy protests which began in March. Syria blames the unrest on "terrorists" and foreign-backed Islamist militants. It says 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.

Syrian security forces shot dead eight people who shouted slogans against President Bashar al-Assad at a rally that had been organised by authorities in the city of Hama on Sunday, to show popular anger at an Arab League decision, activists said.

"Security forces were leading public workers and students into Orontes Square when groups broke away and started shouting 'the people want the fall of the regime'. They escaped into the alleyways but were followed and four were killed," said one of the activists in Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus.

Video posted online shows a group of teenagers who broke away from the state rally running for cover down a street as the sound of automatic gunfire is heard. "God damn your soul, Abu Hafez," some of them shouted, referring to the president.

Syrian authorities have banned most foreign media from the country making independent confirmation of reports difficult.

State television said millions of Syrians denounced the Arab League decision in demonstrations across the country and showed crowds with Syrian flags and posters of Assad in Damascus, and the cities of Raqqa, Latakia and Tartous.

France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia said their diplomatic premises were attacked by pro-government crowds overnight.


Some 1,000 Assad supporters attacked the Turkish embassy in Damascus on Saturday evening, throwing stones and bottles before Syrian police intervened to break up the protest, Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency said.

Non-Arab Turkey, after long courting Assad, has lost patience with its neighbour's failure to halt the violence and implement promised reforms and now hosts the main Syrian opposition and has given refuge to defecting Syrian soldiers.

Turkey's foreign minister is to meet Syrian opposition members in Ankara later on Sunday, a clear diplomatic signal of its growing discontent with Damascus.

Turkey called on Syria to guarantee the safety of Turkish diplomats and for those behind the embassy attacks to be prosecuted. Ankara also warned its citizens against non-essential travel to Syria. Turkey has threatened to impose its own sanctions on Syria since early October but has yet to do so.

Meanwhile, another group of Assad supporters armed with sticks attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus.

Residents said hundreds of men shouting slogans in support of Assad beat a guard and broke into the Saudi embassy in Abu Rummaneh, three blocks away from the president's offices in one of the most heavily policed areas of the capital.

"We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar," the crowd shouted, according to neighbourhood residents.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement a group of demonstrators "gathered outside the embassy, threw stones at it, then stormed the building". Syrian security forces did not react fast enough and held the Syrian government responsible.

France said it "very firmly" condemned "the systematic destruction of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus" and attacks on its own honorary consulate in Latakia and diplomatic offices in Aleppo.

It said the attacks were carried out by groups of demonstrators and security forces did not intervene.

"These attacks constitute a bid to intimidate the international community after the courageous decisions taken by the Arab League in response to the continuing repression in Syria," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia, wary of the growing influence of Shi'ite regional power Iran, Syria's biggest remaining backer, is one of the Arab nations leading the push for stronger measures against Damascus.

The Arab League also plans to impose as yet unspecified economic and political sanctions on Damascus and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors, Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said.

A top U.S. Treasury official held talks with senior Jordanian officials and banking executives on Sunday on efforts to enforce economic sanctions against Syria.

The European Union and the United States have recently expanded sanctions against Syria to put pressure on Damascus to end the violent crackdown on demonstrators.

The U.S. Treasury Department's assistant secretary Daniel Glaser arrived in Amman after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh in Beirut.

A U.S. embassy statement said the Treasury official stressed the "need for authorities to protect the Lebanese financial sector from Syrian attempts to evade sanctions".

Major Lebanese and Jordanian banks have several branches in Syria that were opened in the last six years when the country lifted restrictions on foreign stakes in the banking sector.

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