Arab League 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
AMMAN/CAIRO - Arab states told Syria on Sunday to "resort to reason" and
end months of bloodshed after some of the most intense protests in
Damascus since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
League foreign ministers also agreed to send Secretary-General Nabil
Elaraby to Syria to push for political and economic reforms in the
country ruled by Assad's family for 41 years.
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Overnight Saturday forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad fought gun battles near a northeast Damascus suburb with army defectors who had refused to shoot at a pro-democracy protest, residents said on Sunday.
Dozens of soldiers fled into an area of orchards and farmland after pro-Assad forces fired at a large crowd of demonstrators near the suburb of Harasta to prevent them from marching on the capital in defiance of an Interior Ministry order not to demonstrate in Damascus, they said.
"The army has been firing heavy machine guns throughout the night at al-Ghouta (old gardens surrounding Damascus) and they were being met with response from smaller rifles," a resident of Harasta told Reuters by phone.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied any army defections taking
place. They have expelled independent media since the uprising against
Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, erupted in Mach.
Activists have been reporting increasing defections
among the rank-and-file army, mostly drawn from Syria's Sunni majority
but dominated by an Alawite officer core effectively under the command
of Assad's brother Maher.
The Arab League's move
came as Syria's closest ally Iran also said Damascus must
listen to the "legitimate demands" of its people, adding, however, that
any change in Syria's ruling system or a power vacuum in Damascus would
be dangerous for the region.
The United Nations
says 2,200 people
have been killed since Assad sent in tanks and troops to crush the
demonstrations that erupted in March after the presidents of Tunisia and
Egypt were toppled by popular protests.
despite growing international condemnation, the threat of more
Western sanctions, and escalating economic pressures because of the
impact on tourism and investment, Assad's rule shows no sign of imminent
The Arab League council stressed "the importance of ending bloodshed and
to resort to reason before it is too late".
Syria warned residents of the capital on Saturday not to demonstrate,
"for their safety."
"The Interior Ministry calls on citizens not to respond to social
Internet sites to participate in rallies or assemble in public squares
in Damascus. This is for their safety," a statement by the ministry
published on official media said.
Syrian forces fired live ammunition to prevent thousands of protesters
from marching on the center of Damascus from eastern suburbs on
Saturday, witnesses and activists said, seriously injuring at least five
Security police and militiamen loyal to Assad, known as "shabbiha", also
fired live ammunition at worshipers who tried to demonstrate outside
the al-Rifai mosque in the Kfar Sousa district, home to the secret
Assad loyalists beat the mosque's preacher, Osama al-Rifai, who was
treated with stitches to his head, witnesses said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing witnesses, said more
demonstrations had broken out in Damascus overnight Friday into Saturday
than at any time since the pro-democracy uprising began.
At least three protesters were killed elsewhere in Syria on Saturday as
tens of thousands of people marched to demand the removal of Assad on a
major religious occasion, activists and residents said.