CAIRO - The Arab League said on Thursday it was giving Syria 24 hours to sign a deal to accept Arab monitors under a plan to end an eight-month crackdown on protests, or risk sweeping economic sanctions.

The League, which usually shies away from punishing member states, took the decision at a ministerial meeting after Damascus pursued violent measures against protesters, even though it said it had accepted an Arab peace plan this month.

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The pan-Arab body said in a statement it was informing the United Nations and urging it to take "necessary measures according to the UN charter to support the Arab League's effort to settle the complicated situation in Syria."

One diplomat said this clause was not intended to provide the basis for foreign intervention, which Arabs have rejected.

A League call for a no-fly zone over Libya in March led to a UN resolution that paved the way for NATO air strikes.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said earlier Syria had agreed to sign a protocol to allow in monitors.

But a diplomatic source told Reuters that Syria had called League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby on Thursday morning to say it would wait to see what the ministers decided.

The League statement said Syria was given till Friday to sign the protocol on monitors, or an economic and social panel of ministers would draw up sanctions. Foreign ministers would review those measures at a meeting on Sunday, it said.

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"There will be no ministerial meeting if Syria agrees to sign the protocol," Egypt's envoy, Afifi Abdel Wahab, told reporters after the meeting in Cairo.

The Arab League had originally planned to send 500 observers, including military personnel and delegates from human rights and other civil society groups.

The League listed potential sanctions including suspending air flights, stopping dealings with the Syria's central bank, halting commercial trade with Syria's government, freezing government bank accounts and stopping all financial dealings.

It said it would avoid steps that hurt ordinary Syrians.

The statement said Damascus risked penalties "in the case that Syria does not sign the protocol ... or that it later violates the commitments it entails and does not stop the killing or does not release detainees."

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