TUNIS, February 24, 2012 (AFP)
TUNIS, February 24, 2012 (AFP)
Arab leaders called Friday for peacekeepers to be sent in to Syria, at global meeting aimed at ratcheting up the pressure on the Damascus regime to end months of bloodshed and allow in humanitarian aid.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said embattled President Bashar al-Assad would pay a “heavy cost” for ignoring the will of the international community after almost a year of brutal crackdowns on protesters.
At least 22 more civilians were killed in renewed violence on Friday as Arab and Western ministers met in Tunisia for the first “Friends of Syria” conference called to send a “strong message” to the Damascus regime.
Host nation Tunisia called for an Arab peacekeeping force to be sent in to help bring an end to the killings, and for Assad to be granted immunity to persuade him to stand down.
The meeting comes two days before Syrians are called to vote on a new constitution that could end 50 years of the rule of the Baath Party though keeps wide powers with the president.
“The current situation demands an Arab intervention in the framework of the League, an Arab force to keep peace and security, to accompany diplomatic efforts to convince Bashar to leave,” Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said.
“A political solution must be found, such as granting the Syrian president, his family and members of his regime judicial immunity and a place to seek refuge, which Russia could offer.”
The call for peacekeepers was backed by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who said such a force was needed to maintain security, open humanitarian corridors and implement Arab League decisions on the crisis.
More than 7,600 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted last March, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
As she also announced $10 million in aid for humanitarian efforts, Clinton said the meeting should send a “clear message” to Assad: “You will pay a heavy cost for ignoring the will of the international community and violating the human rights of your people.”
The main opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council has warned that military intervention might be the “only option” to end the crackdown, but Western and Arab nations have so far rejected the idea of a foreign mission similar to the operation that helped topple Moamer Kadhafi’s regime in Libya.
Clinton on Thursday described the SNC as a “credible representative” and would demonstrate that “there is an alternative” to Assad’s regime.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also Friday described the SNC as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition… the pole around which the opposition must organize”.
Juppe told journalists that the meeting would call for tougher sanctions in order to make Assad’s regime “fold”.
“The conference will make a call for strengthening sanctions in a way to make the regime fold,” Juppe said at the meeting in Tunisia, mentioning a freeze on assets of the Syrian central bank in particular.
The European Union is set to slap fresh sanctions on Syria on Monday, including a ban on Syrian-run cargo flights into the bloc, a freeze on Syrian central bank assets and restrictions on trade in gold and precious metals.
But the Tunis conference was marked by the absence of Russia and China highlighting the difficulty in building an international consensus on Syria. Both countries have frustrated efforts to rein in Assad’s regime, including by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of the international affairs committee of Russia’s State Duma lower house, told reporters after a visit to Damascus that Assad was not ready to resign and that he claims to feel strong support.
A Syria-based opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), also said it was boycotting the Tunis conference, complaining of exclusion and fearing escalated militarization.
As the meeting opened in Tunis, police armed with batons beat back several dozen protesters trying to enter the venue chanting “No to the conference!” and “No meeting of the enemies of Arab nations”.
And in Syria, the bloodshed continued. At least four civilians were killed as Syrian forces shelled a rebel-held area of Homs for the 21st straight day, while tens of thousands protested across the country, monitors said.
Syrian forces also killed 18 civilians, including seven members of the same family, in the central Syrian province of Hama, a monitoring group said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it hopes to get a “positive response”, mainly from the Syrian authorities, to evacuate foreign reporters killed and wounded in Homs, and to deliver aid to the besieged city.
“The negotiations have reached a very critical level and we are hoping for a positive answer,” Saleh Dabbakeh, the ICRC’s spokesman in Damascus, told AFP.
An early draft of the Tunis meeting’s declaration said it could call for the Syrian government “immediately to cease all violence and to allow free and nimpeded access by the UN and humanitarian agencies”.
The United Nations on Thursday named its former leader Kofi Annan as a joint UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, a move welcomed by Russia which called for an immediate ceasefire to evacuate wounded from Homs.
“We hope that the work of this respected statesman will assist in solving the acute political and humanitarian problems in Syria,” the Russian foreign ministry said.
Amnesty International demanded Friday that aid agencies be given immediate access to Homs and other protest cities.