Arab League sets sanctions deadline as bloodshed in Syria goes on

SYRIA has until tonight to sign a protocol allowing monitors into the country or face sanctions from the Arab League over its crackdown on protests, including halting flights and suspending transactions with the central bank.

Arab foreign ministers who met in Cairo yesterday said unless Syria agreed to let the monitors in to assess progress of an Arab League plan to end eight months of bloodshed, officials would consider imposing sanctions beginning tomorrow.

Under a 2 November Arab League initiative, Syria agreed to withdraw troops from urban centres, release political prisoners, start a dialogue with the opposition and allow monitors and international media into the country.

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Since then, hundreds of people, civilians, security forces and army deserters, have been killed as the unrest which the United Nations says has killed 3,500 people since March continued.

The violence prompted former ally Turkey to bluntly tell president Bashar al-Assad to step down, and led France to propose “humanitarian corridors” in Syria to help transport medicines or other supplies to civilians in need.

“In the case that Syria does not sign the protocol … or that it later violates the commitments that it entails, and does not stop the killing or does not release the detainees … [Arab League officials] will meet on Saturday to consider sanctions on Syria,” ministers said.

They said possible sanctions, which were not intended to affect ordinary Syrians, included suspending flights to Syria, stopping dealings with the central bank, freezing Syrian government bank accounts and halting financial dealings.

They could also decide to stop commercial trade with the Syrian government “with the exception of strategic commodities so as not to impact the Syrian people”, a ministers’ statement said.

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership two weeks ago, while this week the prime minister of regional heavyweight Turkey – a Nato member with the military wherewithal to mount a cross-border operation – told Mr Assad to quit and said he should look at what happened to fallen dictators such as Libya’s deposed leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.

France became the first major power to seek international intervention in Syria when it called for “humanitarian corridors” to alleviate civilian suffering.

A western diplomatic source said the French plan, with or without approval from Damascus, could link Syrian civilian centres to frontiers such as Turkey and Lebanon, and to the Mediterranean coast or to an airport.

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Its aim would be to enable the transport of humanitarian supplies or medicines to a population that is suffering, the source said.

Alain Juppe, French minister of foreign affairs, insisted the plan fell short of a military intervention, but acknowledged that humanitarian convoys would need armed protection.

In a sign of Paris’s growing frustration at events, the foreign ministry said France was particularly concerned with what was happening in the city of Homs, which has become a centre of resistance against Mr Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group, said at least 23 people were killed in Syria yesterday, including six civilians in Homs.

Activists and a resident also said Syrian troops in tanks fired on hideouts of army deserters near the central town of Rastan, two months after the authorities said they had regained control of the region.

The US navy said the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush arrived this week in the Mediterranean.

“It is probably routine movement,” said a western diplomat in the region. “But it is going to put pressure on the regime, and the Americans don’t mind that.”