Middle East

Arab League sanctions for Syria

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Media captionProtesters gathered at the funerals of three people killed in yesterday's demonstrations

The Arab League has voted to suspend Syria from its meetings and impose sanctions against Damascus over its failure to end a government crackdown on protesters.

It asked member states to withdraw their ambassadors, and urged Damascus to end violence against protesters.

The vote came after Syria ignored an Arab League proposal envisaging the start of dialogue with the opposition.

But Syria's representative said the decision violated the league's charter.

Youssef Ahmed told Syrian state TV said it showed the league was "serving a Western and American agenda".

In Damascus, hundreds of Syrian government supporters threw rocks at the Saudi embassy, and some managed to get in, smashing windows and sacking the building, the Saudi state news agency SPA reported.

Saudi Arabia was one of the Arab League members which voted in favour of the suspension.

US President Barack Obama applauded the decision, and vowed to support the Syrian people "in the face of the regime's callous violence".

In London, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the continuing violence was "deplorable and must stop".

The Arab League proposals - accepted by the government of President Bashar al-Assad - include the release of prisoners, the withdrawal of security forces from the streets and talks between the government and opposition.

But the violence has continued, with the city of Homs bearing the brunt, say human rights activists. Twelve died on Saturday.

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report this week documenting allegations of torture and unlawful killings in the city, and called on the Arab League to step up pressure on Damascus.

President Assad has sought to put down the protests since March. The UN says more than 3,500 people have died in the protests so far.

'Concern for Syria'

Eighteen Arab League member states voted at the Cairo meeting to suspend Syria, with Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voting against and Iraq abstaining.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says the decision is the most that anyone could have realistically expected from the Arab League.

It is a huge blow to Syria's pride, and could also be a real practical blow to its leaders, our correspondent adds.

But opposition groups are already calling for more action, he says, including a no-fly zone.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim said the suspension would take effect on Wednesday, adding that talks would be held with Syrian opposition groups in three days' time.

"We were criticised for taking a long time but this was out of our concern for Syria," he said, quoted by Reuters news agency.

"We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions.

"We are calling all Syrian opposition parties to a meeting at the Arab League headquarters to agree a unified vision for the transitional period."

'Not Libya'

Mr Jassim said that if the violence and killing did not stop, the Arab League would contact human rights organisations and the UN and "set a vision for the appropriate measures to stop that bloodshed".

This vision would be submitted to another league meeting on 16 November, he added.

The Arab League's condemnation of violence by Col Muammar Gaddafi's government in Libya and call for a no-fly zone paved the way for a UN Security Council resolution protecting civilians and a Nato-led mission there.

But Mr Jassim denied that Saturday's decision would lead to international intervention in Syria.

"No-one is talking about a no-fly zone, people are trying to mix up the cases. None of us is talking about this kind of decision," he said.

Violence continued in Syria on Saturday with 12 people killed, the Local Co-ordination Committees said - four of them were in Deraa and three each in Homs and Idlib.

Thirteen people died on Friday, most of them in Homs.

There were also reports of violence and mass arrests in the capital, Damascus.

Mass street protests after Friday prayers, followed by brutal crackdowns by security forces have become a weekly feature of Syria's uprising.

President Assad's government insists it is battling armed gangs and militants and says hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.

The government has restricted foreign journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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