Arab League prepares for Syria sanctions

BEIRUT Sat Nov 26, 2011 10:41pm IST

Syrians living in Turkey shout slogans as they protest against the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul November 25, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Syrians living in Turkey shout slogans as they protest against the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul November 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Murad Sezer

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed four people in Homs city on Saturday, activists said, shortly before Arab ministers were due to draw up sanctions against Damascus over its crackdown on protests and failure to let observers into the country.

Damascus missed a Friday deadline to agree an Arab League proposal to send monitors to Syria, where the United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite Syria's pledge this month to withdraw its army from urban areas and let in the monitors, the violence has continued, prompting reprisals from the Arab League, stinging rebukes from Turkey and French proposals for humanitarian intervention.

Damascus, where the Assad family has ruled for 41 years, says regional powers helped incite the violence, which it blames on armed groups targeting civilians and its security forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people, including a 10-year-old child, were killed on Saturday in separate incidents across Homs, a centre of increasing opposition to Assad and deepening sectarian violence.

The British-based opposition group said at least 30 people were killed the day before including 13 members of Assad's security forces, most of them killed in a clash with army deserters in the eastern Deir al-Zor province.

Arab ministers had warned that unless Syria agreed to let monitors in, they could consider imposing sanctions including suspending flights to Syria, stopping dealings with the central bank, freezing Syrian government bank accounts and halting financial dealings.

They could also decide to stop commercial trade with the Syrian government "with the exception of strategic commodities so as not to impact the Syrian people", the ministers said.

IRAQ "HAS RESERVATIONS"

The League's economic and social council was due to meet on Saturday evening to recommend sanctions which will be put to a meeting of foreign ministers on Sunday.

But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country would not take part in the deliberations and said several of Syria's Arab neighbours had reservations about sanctions.

"Iraq is a neighbour to Syria and there are interests -- there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis living in Syria are there is trade," he told reporters in Najaf. "Lebanon also has the same idea and Jordan too has shown its objection."

Lebanon was one of only two countries to vote against suspending Syria from the Arab League.

Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour has said his country would not impose sanctions on Syria, but Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Lebanon would implement Arab League decisions "because it is in our interest to be with the Arab consensus".

Syria's economy is already reeling from months of unrest, aggravated by U.S. and European sanctions on oil exports and several state businesses.

In neighbouring Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country could take steps alongside the Arab League if Syria did not respond to the proposal for observers positively.

"I want to say clearly we have no more tolerance for the bloodshed in Syria," he said.

The stepped-up pressure followed a French proposal for "humanitarian corridors" to be set up through which food and medicine could be shipped to alleviate civilian suffering.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the plan fell short of a military intervention but acknowledged that humanitarian convoys might need armed protection.

The proposal could link Syrian civilian centres to the frontiers of Turkey and Lebanon, to the Mediterranean coast or to an airport, and enable supply of humanitarian supplies or medicines to people in need.

But United Nations humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos suggested that setting up humanitarian corridors into Syria or buffer zones on the border could be premature.

"At present, the humanitarian needs identified in Syria do not warrant the implementation of either of those mechanisms," she said, adding that the United Nations had been unable to assess comprehensively those needs because of the limited number of international staff operating in Syria.

Amos said 3 million people had been affected by the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and Syria's Red Crescent had sought support to feed 1.5 million people.

PILOTS KILLED

Alongside the mainly peaceful protests, armed insurgents have increasingly attacked military targets in recent weeks. Officials say 1,100 members of the security forces have been killed since the outbreak of uprising.

State news agency SANA reported funerals of 22 security force members on Saturday, including six pilots killed in an attack on an air force base between Homs and Palmyra two days earlier which the army says was carried out by an "armed terrorist group".

"This confirms the involvement of foreign elements and their support of these terrorist operations in an effort to weaken the fighting capabilities of our forces," the army said on Friday.

The account fits the government narrative that it faces an armed insurrection by trouble-makers backed by its enemies, rather than a largely peaceful pro-democracy movement inspired by the Arab Spring revolts which toppled the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and may have forced out Yemen's president.

State television showed footage of thousands of people demonstrating in the Mediterranean city of Latakia on Saturday, condemning the Arab League for taking a stance against Syria and chanting in support of Assad.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Baghdad; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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