Middle East

Syria accused over attacks on Saudi and Qatari embassy

Pro-Syrian government supporters raise the Syrian flag on the roof of the Qatar embassy in Damascus on 12 November 2011
Image caption Pro-government supporters raised the Syrian flag after storming the Qatari embassy in Damascus

Saudi Arabia has condemned an attack on its embassy in Damascus by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Saudi and Qatari embassies were stormed by crowds after both countries voted to suspend Syria from meetings of the Arab League.

Saudi Arabia accused Syria's government of failing to take sufficient measures to stop the attack on its building.

The Arab League vote came after Syria failed to end a violent crackdown on opposition protesters.

Syrian authorities said the vote violated the league's charter, and accused it of serving a "Western and American agenda".

As the result became known on Saturday, groups of protesters gathered outside both the Saudi and Qatari embassies in the Syrian capital.

The French and Turkish consulates in the city of Latakia were also attacked, Reuters news agency reports.

The Saudi state news agency SPA said hundreds of Syrian government supporters threw rocks at its embassy. Some managed to get in, smashing windows and ransacking the building.

"Syrian authorities did not carry out the necessary measures to stop" the demonstrators, the SPA quoted the Saudi foreign ministry as saying.

"The Saudi government strongly condemns this incident and holds the Syrian authorities responsible for the security and protection of all Saudi interests in Syria," the ministry said.

Pro-Syrian government supporters also forced their way into the Qatari embassy - climbing to the top of the building to remove the Qatari flag and replace it with a Syrian one.

Both the Saudi and Qatari ambassadors left Damascus in the summer in protest at President Bashar al-Assad's crack down on protests in the country since March.

'Huge blow'

Eighteen member states of the Arab League - which is chaired by Qatar - voted on Saturday to suspend Syria from its meetings and impose sanctions. It has also asked member states to withdraw their ambassadors.

Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the move, and Iraq abstained.

The vote was taken after Syria ignored an Arab League proposal - accepted by President Assad's government - which would have involved releasing prisoners, withdrawing security forces from the streets and beginning dialogue with the opposition.

The league has also called on Damascus to halt the violence, and warned it could refer Syria to the United Nations if the bloodshed did not stop.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says the decision is the most that anyone could have realistically expected from the Arab League.

It is a huge blow to Syria's pride, and could also be a real practical blow to its leaders, our correspondent adds.

The UN says more than 3,500 people have died since the start of the protests in March. Thirteen people died on Friday, most of them in the city of Homs, which has borne the brunt of the violence, and 12 died on Saturday.

Mass street protests after Friday prayers, followed by brutal crackdowns by security forces, have become a weekly feature of Syria's uprising.

President Assad's government insists it is battling armed gangs and militants and says hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.

The government has restricted foreign journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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