Top Sunni cleric adds voice to Arab criticism of Syria

Head of Cairo-based al-Azhar, a central seat of Sunni scholarship since Middle Ages, joins Arab League, Saudis in saying crackdown must stop.

Syrian tank in Hama 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian tank in Hama 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
CAIRO - The head of the most influential school of Sunni Islam added his voice on Monday to international and Arab criticism of Syrian President Bashar Assad's assault on protesters, describing the bloodshed as a human tragedy that must stop.
A statement from Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Cairo-based al-Azhar, a university and clerical body that has been a central seat of Sunni scholarship since the Middle Ages, said the body owed it to the Syrian people to "clearly announce matters have gone beyond the limit".
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"This is a human tragedy that cannot be accepted," Tayeb said in the statement carried by Egypt's state news agency MENA. "Blood was shed, families were split up ... and unarmed people are being fought with live ammunition, iron and fire."
"Blood only fuels the fires of revolutions," Tayeb said, calling on Syrian authorities to immediately stop the bloodshed and respond to the "legitimate demands of the people".
Assad extended a tank onslaught in Syria's Sunni Muslim tribal heartland on Monday, residents said, in a crackdown on dissent that prompted an extraordinary warning from Saudi Arabia that he should stop the violence or risk defeat.
King Abdullah broke Arab silence after the bloodiest week of the almost five-month uprising for more political freedoms in Syria, demanding an end to the bloodshed and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus.
Hours later Kuwait and Bahrain recalled their envoys too.
The steps by Gulf Arab states who watched the unrest mutely but nervously for months deepened Assad's international isolation. Western nations have imposed sanctions on his top officials while countries with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned Assad he is running out of time.
The Saudi criticism was the sharpest the oil giant has directed against any fellow Arab state since pro-democracy uprisings began to sweep across the Middle East in January, toppling autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, kindling civil war in Libya and rattling entrenched elites throughout the region.
"What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia," Abdullah said in a written statement read out on Al Arabiya satellite television.
"Syria should think wisely before it's too late and issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms," said the Saudi king, an absolute ruler whose country has no elected parliament. "Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss."
Syrian tanks and troops poured into the eastern Sunni city of Deir al-Zor in the latest stage of a campaign to crush centers of protest against 41 years of repressive rule by the Assad family and domination by his Alawite minority community.
"Armored vehicles are shelling the al-Hawiqa district heavily with their guns. Private hospitals are closed and people are afraid to send the wounded to state facilities because they are infested with secret police," Mohammad, a Deir al-Zor resident who did not want to give his full name.
He said at least 65 people had been killed since tanks and armoured vehicles barrelled into the provincial capital, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus, on Sunday, crumpling makeshift barricades and opening fire.
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