Middle East

Syria crisis: Gulf Arab states expel Syrian ambassadors

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Media captionBBC's Paul Wood, in Homs, says Russian-made tanks are firing on residents

Gulf Arab states say they are expelling Syrian ambassadors in their countries and recalling their envoys from Syria.

The Gulf Cooperation Council said Syria had rejected Arab attempts to solve the crisis and end 11 months of bloodshed.

The US closed its embassy in Syria on Monday, and several European countries have recalled their ambassadors.

The moves came as Syrian government forces continued their fierce assault on the restive city of Homs, and Russian officials visited Damascus.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a solution to the crisis based on Arab League initiatives, days after Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution on Syria.

After meeting Mr Lavrov, Syrian media quoted President Bashar al-Assad as saying he was willing to co-operate with "any efforts towards stability".

Separately Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, denied reports that he had threatened Qatar's prime minister during talks at the UN last week.

Someone was trying to drive a wedge between Russia and the Arab world, he said.

'Operations continue'

The BBC's Paul Wood - one of the very few foreign reporters in Homs - says the Syrian army resumed mortar attacks and heavy machine-gun fire after daybreak.

He says Russian-made tanks have been seen close to the city centre, but there is no sign so far of the ground assault feared by many residents.

Hundreds are reported to have died since the shelling of the city began on Friday. At least 95 people were killed on Monday alone, activists say.

At least 15 were killed on Tuesday, they said.

The Interior Ministry said it would continue its operations in the city against "terrorist groups" until "order" was restored, in a statement quoted by state news agency Sana.

There were reports of more fighting in Hama, another flashpoint city, and the town of Zabadani near Damascus.

'Honest efforts aborted'

A Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) statement said: "Members have decided to withdraw their ambassadors from Syria and ask at the same time for all the ambassadors of the Syrian regime to leave immediately."

There was "no point in them staying after the Syrian regime rejected all attempts and aborted all honest Arab efforts to solve this crisis and end the bloodshed", it added.

Member states "follow with sorrow and anger, the increase in killing and violence in Syria, which has not spared children, old people or women with heinous acts that at best can be described as mass slaughter".

The GCC said it would urge all other Arab states to adopt "decisive measures" when the Arab League meets next week.

The decision comes a day after the US closed its embassy in Damascus and pulled out all remaining staff.

The UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy have also recalled their ambassadors.

Mr Lavrov called for a solution to the crisis based on initiatives put forward by the Arab League on 2 November 2011 to end the violence, though he has given no indication that Russia supports the league's more recent call for Mr Assad to step down.

He said Damascus was ready for a larger Arab mission to monitor peace efforts, and would set a date for a constitutional referendum.

The Arab League deployed an observer mission to Syria in December but suspended it in late January amid worsening violence.

Later, Syrian state news agency Sana said Mr Assad "reiterated Syria's willingness to work with all efforts towards stability in Syria".

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Media captionRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: "The President of Syria has assured that he is fully committed to the goal of putting an end to the violence"

But US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington would withhold judgement on Mr Lavrov's visit.

"You can understand that the international community as a whole would be pretty sceptical of, instead of focusing on ending the violence, what we seem to have is a re-upping of this same offer that Assad has been making for months and months and months," she said.

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, has voiced strong criticism of the stalemate at the UN, saying the Russian and Chinese vetoes on Saturday encouraged the Syria government to step up the assault on Homs.

Mr Lavrov has said Western reaction condemning Russia's veto on Saturday bordered on "hysteria".

Moscow has said the draft - which backed an Arab League peace plan calling for President Assad to hand over power - would have forced regime change on Syria.

The Syrian government, which has been fighting an uprising against President Assad's rule since March, says it is fighting foreign-backed armed gangs.

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Media captionAbu Ebad told Radio 5Live the bombing was very heavy and "we haven't seen bombing like this before"

Thousands of former army soldiers have defected to the rebel side, forming the Free Syrian Army.

Syria's interior ministry said operations against "terrorist groups" would continue until "security and order are restored" in Homs.

Human rights groups and activists say more than 7,000 people have been killed by Syrian security forces since the uprising began last March.

The UN stopped estimating the death toll in Syria after it passed 5,400 in January, saying it was too difficult to confirm.

President Assad's government says at least 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

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