Syria: Arab League backs opposition, calls for joint UN peacekeeping force
ARAB nations have called for a joint United Nations peacekeeping force to be sent to the country. At a crisis meeting in Cairo, the Arab League agreed to take exceptional measures to halt President Bashar al-Assad's violent repression of civilian protesters.
It voted to scrap its much criticised observer mission to Syria, severed all diplomatic relations with the Assad regime and reinforced economic sanctions.
The League called for the opening of "communication channels with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and material support to it".
In a landmark decision it asked the United Nations for support in sending a joint peacekeeping force. Nabil al-Arabi, the League's secretary general, urged ministers to move quickly to end the "vicious cycle of violence".
The Syrian regime immediately rejected the resolution "categorically".
The UN-Arab team proposed by the League would replace the 170 Arab observers deployed in December and recalled last month. The Sudanese general who led the mission, and was accused by opposition activists of bias towards the regime, resigned yesterday.
The announcement marks an urgent effort to end the bloodshed after Russia and China used their UN Security Council veto to block an Arab-drafted and Western-backed plan to have Mr Assad replaced by a transitional government.
At the start of the session, Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, asked the delegates: "How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres?"
As the Arab leaders met, rockets continued to fall on the Syrian opposition stronghold of Homs. Activists reported more than 500 people have died there since February 4.
The Syrian army was reportedly distributing gas masks to its soldiers, leading to fears that chemical weapons will soon be used against protesters.
On Saturday, 31 people were killed across the country according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Of the ten who died in Homs, nine were in the opposition neighbourhood of Baba Amro. Graphic YouTube clips documenting casualties of the conflict flood show mutilated and charred corpses – alleged victims of government shells.
One video posted on Twitter shows a doctor in Baba Amr struggling to treat the gravely injured without even basic medical equipment. A makeshift hospital has been erected in a mosque after the local field hospital was destroyed. The doctor spoke to the camera over blasts of gunfire.
"This is a small mosque and there are a huge number of injured people. All of these are serious injuries that resulted from bullets. Most of them are unconscious," he says pointing to several lifeless men lying on the ground.
"Many children have been killed. The death toll up to now is around 40."
On the same day in Damascus, opposition militants assassinated Dr Issa al-Kholi, a Syrian General in charge of the Hameish military hospital. Syria's Arab News Agency reports that Dr Kholi was gunned down as he left his home in the morning. He, like the ruling Assad family, was a member of the elite Alawite Shia minority.
The conflict even spread to Tripoli, where on Saturday Lebanese forces moved into stop clashes between Sunni and Alawite neighbours. Two people were killed.
Saturday's high death toll comes just one day after a coordinated suicide bomb attack in Aleppo left 28 dead and 235 injured, according to government figures. US intelligence has pointed to al-Qaeda as the likely culprits.
As the conflict in Syria enters its eleventh month, having so far claimed an estimated 5,400 lives, the Arab League talked on Sunday about amassing a force of up to 3,000 observers to halt violence. Arabi told ministers he had already proposed the idea to the UN General Secretary.
Arab ministers are meanwhile engaged in intensive talks with Russia and China in the hope they can encourage Bashar Assad to allow peacekeeping forces into the country.