Middle East

Outside pressure builds on Syria as violence continues

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Media captionJon Leyne, reporting from Cairo, says it is unclear how many of the protesters are there of their own volition. Footage from Syrian state TV

Syria's leadership is under mounting pressure from other Arab states to halt its continuing violent repression of pro-democracy protests.

The head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, said the organisation was "studying mechanisms it could implement to protect civilians in Syria".

He spoke after the League voted to freeze Syria's membership, a move that sparked pro-government riots in Syria.

France has joined the condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

It summoned the Syrian ambassador to Paris on Sunday to demand an explanation for attacks by Assad loyalists on diplomatic missions in Syria, including its own, following Saturday's suspension.

Turkey, which has begun withdrawing non-essential diplomatic personnel and families of diplomatic staff, called on the international community to "respond with a united voice to the serious developments in Syria".

The Saudi and Qatari embassies were stormed during Saturday's pro-Assad protests, and new mass rallies by loyalists were held on Sunday.

With Syria's suspension not due to take effect until Wednesday, Damascus has called for an urgent Arab summit and invited Arab League officials to visit.

Meanwhile, opposition sources said the repression of dissent continued on Sunday, with nine people reportedly killed by security forces.

According to a report which could not be verified independently, security forces shot and bludgeoned to death a schoolboy, 14, in the town of Dir Az-Zour after he refused to join a pro-government march.

The UN says more than 3,500 people have died since the start of the protests in March while the Syrian authorities blame the violence on terrorists.

'UN role'

Speaking on a visit to the Libyan capital Tripoli, the Arab League's secretary general did not give details of what further action the organisation could take to protect Syrian civilians.

Describing the 22-member League's decision to suspend Syria as "historic", Mr Arabi called for "international protection" for civilians as the League lacked the means to act alone.

"There is nothing wrong with going to the UN Security Council because it is the only organisation able to impose" such measures, he added.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says the Arab League's aim now is to isolate Syria.

Eighteen member states of the League - which is chaired by Qatar - voted for the suspension of Syria, with Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voting against and Iraq abstaining.

The vote was taken after Syria appeared to ignore a League plan - which it had initially accepted - that would involve releasing prisoners, withdrawing security forces from the streets and beginning a dialogue with the opposition.

Syria called on Sunday for an emergency Arab summit, saying Saturday's vote was "illegal" and it had already begun implementing the peace plan.

Correspondents say the invitation for League officials to visit Syria is a significant concession by Damascus.

Syria is aware that Libya's suspension from the Arab League helped persuade the UN Security Council to authorise the military action which helped topple Col Muammar Gaddafi.

'Tails of Obama'

Summoning the Syrian ambassador, the French foreign ministry said Saturday's attacks on diplomatic missions were "an attempt to intimidate the international community after the Arab League's courageous decision".

"The Syrian regime is held entirely responsible for these excesses and will have to give an explanation," it said.

Families of Turkish diplomatic staff were flown back to Ankara but Ambassador Omer Onhon and others planned to stay on.

Mass rallies in support of Mr Assad took place in Damascus and other Syrian cities on Sunday.

"You Arab leaders are the tails of Obama," read one banner seen by the Associated Press, accusing the Arab League of bowing to pressure from the US president.

In Hama, security forces are said to have killed four people after opposition activists began a counter-protest at a march in support of President Assad.

At least four other deaths in clashes with security forces in Syria were also reported.

In Dir Az-Zour, schoolboy Mohamed Abdul Salam Al-Mlaessa was killed in front of his classmates, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Graphic video was released showing what appeared to be the body of a dead youth, with wound marks on his skin.

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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