Arab League chief in Syria as Assad's forces kill six

Nabil Elaraby expected to convey concerns over crackdown on protests which has killed more than 2,000 people; bloodshed reported in Homs.

Syrian Tank 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian Tank 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby met Syria's President Bashar Assad on Saturday to push for reforms and an end to bloodshed, but as they met activists said Assad's forces had killed six people as they pressed on with a crackdown on dissent.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five people had been killed in the Bab Amro district of Homs during a sweep by the army and security forces on Saturday. A 45-year-old man was shot dead by security forces at a checkpoint in the northern province of Idlib, it added.
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Assad has responded to nearly six months of street protests, inspired by Arab uprisings that have overthrown three North African leaders, with a mix of repression and promises of reform that have been dismissed by protesters.
Elaraby had originally been expected to travel to Damascus on Wednesday but Arab diplomats said the visit had been delayed at Syria's request, reflecting unease in Damascus over any outside criticism or intervention.
Foreign ministers of the 22-member Arab League told Syria two weeks ago work to end the months of violence "and resort to reason before it's too late".
The Cairo-based organization has been under pressure to speak out more openly following the uprisings that ousted leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and led to the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi -- achieved with NATO military intervention endorsed by the Arab League.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Syria and regional powers have grown increasingly critical of Assad, but no country has proposed the kind of international military action that brought down Gaddafi.
Authorities in Damascus blame armed groups for the violence and say 500 soldiers and police have been killed since the unrest erupted in the southern city of Deraa in mid-March.
The United Nations says 2,200 people have died in the uprising, while a Syrian grassroots organisation says security forces have killed 3,000 civilians.
Syria has barred most independent media, making it hard to verify accounts by activists and authorities.
Activists said six people were killed during protests after midday prayers on Friday.
In a change to their rhetoric, demonstrators demanded international protection to stop civilian killings in what has become one of the most violent responses to the "Arab Spring" protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
"Where is the international community?" shouted protesters in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya.
In Hajar al-Aswad, on the southern edge of Damascus, protesters carried a large green, white and red-striped Syrian flag dating back half a century to the era before Assad's Baath Party seized control of Syria.
"After all these killings and assaults, where is the international protection?" read a banner carried by protesters chanting: "The people want the execution of the president."
Syria's powerful neighbor Turkey has indicated that its patience is wearing thin given the lack of progress in its efforts to convince Assad to halt the military assaults.
"We are moving patiently now. But after consultations, we will give our final word, which will show an exit from the tunnel," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Al Jazeera Television in an interview broadcast on Thursday.
"We are not the ones who put Assad on this dead-end road. It was he and those around him who entered this dead-end road."
The European Union, which banned imports of Syrian crude oil last week, moved closer on Friday to banning investment in the oil industry, EU diplomats said. Syria is only a small oil producer but nearly all of its exports last year were bought by Europe, and European oil firms have investments there.
However, there has been no hint in the West of any appetite for military action along Libyan lines. Syria has three times Libya's population and, unlike Gaddafi's Libya, is intricately linked to neighbors on the faultlines of Middle East conflicts.
Syria has long had a strong regional alliance with Iran but, in an unusual sign of unease, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged Assad this week to open talks with the opposition, saying a military crackdown was "never the right solution".
Iran crushed its own anti-government street protests in 2009 after Ahmadinejad's contested re-election.