Arab states urge end to Syria bloodshed, send envoy

Move comes as Syrian forces fight gun battles near Damascus with army defectors who refused to shoot at a pro-democracy protest.

August 28, 2011 10:22
3 minute read.
Arab League

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.

Arab 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.

But 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 collapse.

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 people.

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 police headquarters.

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.

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