Arab League faces pressure to oust Syria at Cairo summit

Protesters call on Arab FMs to suspend Damascus's membership after 20 more protesters killed; Saudis lead Gulf states ready to increase pressure on Assad, while Yemen, Lebanon and Algeria oppose further measures.

Arab League 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Arab League 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
The Arab League was scheduled to meet in Cairo on Saturday to discuss Syrian President Bashar Assad's violent crackdown on dissidents, which the UN says has claimed more than 3,500 lives over the past eight months.
Syrian security forces killed 20 people on Friday and protesters called on the Arab League to suspend Damascus's membership in response to continued violence, activists said.
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Activists in Homs, which has suffered the highest death toll of any Syrian province since the uprising against Assad broke out in March, said security forces killed nine civilians and one defecting soldier.
The other fatalities were in Hama, the old Roman city of Busra al-Sham in the southern Hauran Plain and in the northern province of Idlib, they said.
"The people want (Syria's) membership to be suspended," shouted a crowd at a rally in the Deir Baalba district of Homs, appealing to the 22-member Arab League to act against Damascus when it meets in Cairo on Saturday, Internet footage of the rally showed.
Under an Arab League plan agreed on Nov. 2, Syria pledged to pull the military out of restive cities, free political prisoners and start talks with the opposition.
Since then, security forces have killed more than 100 people in Homs, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued on Friday.
"The systematic nature of abuses against civilians in Homs by Syrian government forces, including torture and unlawful killings, constitute crimes against humanity," the group said.
It called on the Arab League to suspend Syria, request the United Nations impose sanctions on those responsible for the violence and refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Assad, from the minority Alawite community which has held power for four decades in mainly Sunni Muslim Syria, has said he has used legitimate means to confront a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
The official news agency said "armed terrorist groups" killed two security police and four civilians in the provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib and explosive devices were dismantled in several areas across the country.
The agency quoted Syria's representative to the Arab League as saying Syria was "serious" in its commitment to the plan and that authorities have implemented most of it.
Damascus invited the Arab League a month ago to send officials to Syria to "have knowledge of the truth ... away from political unfairness and media falsehood," he said.
Syria blames armed groups for the violence and says 1,100 members of the security forces have been killed.
Arab states remain divided over how to deal with Syria and Saturday's meeting is not expected to bridge the gap.
Several countries oppose putting serious pressure on Assad and it looks unlikely that foreign ministers will freeze Syria's membership, officials due to attend the Cairo talks say.
Saudi Arabia leads a group of Gulf states including Qatar, Oman and Bahrain that are ready to increase the pressure on Assad, an ally of their rival Iran.
Diplomats say they are opposed by countries such as Yemen --in the grip of its own uprising; Lebanon -- where Syria's influence looms large; and Algeria, seen as more sympathetic to Assad and nervous about the message any intervention in Syria would send to its own population.