Violence flares after Arab League suspends Syria
DAMASCUS — Syrian forces were accused of pressing their deadly crackdown on protests Sunday even as thousands of regime supporters vented their anger a day after the Arab League suspended the country.
The governments of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey issued strong condemnations of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime after his supporters attacked their embassies in the wake of the suspension.
Arab League foreign ministers on Saturday voted 18-22 to suspend Syria over its failure to comply with an agreement to end the crackdown on a nationwide protest movement calling for Assad’s resignation.
It called for the withdrawal of Arab envoys from Damascus and agreed on sanctions while inviting “all currents in the Syrian opposition to meet at Arab League headquarters in three days to draw up a joint vision for the coming transitional period.”
The move won widespread praise in the international community, and was hailed by the opposition Syrian National Council, which said it was ready to take part in proposed talks regarding a transitional period.
But Assad’s government on Sunday called for an urgent Arab summit.
“Syria demands an emergency Arab summit to address the crisis and its negative consequences in the Arab world,” state television reported.
In central Damascus, tens of thousands of people turned out in support of Assad, waving Syrian flags and portraits of the embattled leader.
“The people want Bashar al-Assad,” yelled demonstrators gathered at Sebaa Bahrat Square, as state television broadcast footage of another massive rally in Omayad Square, also in the capital.
“The Syrian people are filling the squares of the nation and announce their rejection of the Arab League decision,” state television said, showing more protests in the commercial hub of Aleppo and other cities.
On the ground, Syrian security forces pressed their crackdown on dissent, killing at least five people in the central cities of Homs and Hama, rights activists said, adding two soldiers were killed in an ambush.
“Security forces opened fire killing four people in Hama,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Homs, snipers killed one person early in the morning, said the Observatory, which reported a similar incident in the same place the previous day.
Meanwhile, engineering students were injured by a “round of mortar” fire which hit their faculty building in Baath University, also in Homs, the same source added.
And two citizens, one in Homs and the other in Hama, died from gunshot wounds suffered the previous day.
Gunmen believed to be defectors ambushed and killed two soldiers patrolling town of Qusayr, near Homs, the Observatory said.
In its statement, the opposition SNC said it “welcomes the decisions… considers them a step in the right direction, and a clear condemnation of the Syrian regime, which has persisted in its killing and destruction campaigns.”
It stressed “readiness to participate in discussions regarding the transitional period” on the basis Assad departs and is replaced by a democratic government that excludes anyone “whose hands have been tainted with blood.”
On Sunday, the League said it was studying measures to protect Syrian civilians.
“The Arab League is studying mechanisms it could implement to protect civilians in Syria,” the League’s secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, told reporters in the Libyan capital, without going into details.
Arabi hailed the League’s decision to suspend Syria as “historic,” and said the 22-member bloc called for the “international protection” of civilians in the country as it did not have the means to act alone.
“There is nothing wrong with going to the UN Security Council because it is the only organisation able to impose” such measures, he added.
The League said the suspension would remain in place until Assad implements the accord his government signed on November 2, and called for economic and political sanctions and transition talks with the opposition.
The eight-month crackdown on dissent and related violence in Syria has left more than 3,500 people dead, the majority of them civilians, according to UN figures.
Shortly after the Arab League decision, hundreds of angry demonstrators attacked the embassies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which voted to suspend Syria from the League.
One group forced open the gate to Qatar’s embassy and made their way to the top of the building, where they removed the Qatari flag and put up a Syrian one, as embassy security personnel fired tear gas, an AFP reporter said.
Another group hurled stones at the Saudi embassy before smashing windows, entering the premises and ransacking property inside, said the Saudi state news agency SPA.
“The Saudi government strongly condemns this incident and holds the Syrian authorities responsible for the security and protection of all Saudi interests in Syria,” SPA quoted a foreign ministry as saying on Sunday.
Anatolia news agency said thousands of protestors also attacked Turkey’s diplomatic mission in Syria, furious over Ankara’s support for the Arab League decision.
Simultaneous protests took place in Damascus and the northern cities of Latakia and Aleppo, where protesters managed to break into the consulate building, Anatolia said.
In response, Turkey ordered the evacuation of non-essential diplomatic personnel from Syria, Anatolia news agency reported.
France condemned protesters’ attacks on its missions in Latakia and Aleppo and on other embassies and has summoned Syria’s ambassador, it said.