Arab League tells Syria to end bloodshed soon
CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab foreign ministers told Syria on Sunday to work to end months of bloodshed "before it's too late," and decided to send Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby to Damascus to push for political and economic reforms.
But in a conciliatory message to Damascus, the ministers also said after an extraordinary meeting in Cairo that Syria's stability was crucial for the Arab World and the whole region.
The Syrian government has sent in troops and tanks to crush five months of street protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad steps down, killing at least 2,200 protesters according to the United Nations.
Syria says it is working hard to introduce reforms in the Arab country which borders Lebanon, Israel and Iraq but blames militants for the violence.
"The (Arab League) council expresses concern and worry over the dangerous developments on the Syrian arena that had caused thousands of casualties, including dead and wounded," the Arab League council said in a statement after an expected news conference was canceled.
"It also stresses the importance of ending bloodshed and to resort to reason before it is too late," the statement said.
It was the first official Arab League meeting on Syria since the start of the uprising.
Many Arab commentators have criticised the League for its timid reaction to the violence. It spent months only voicing "concern," suggesting divisions among its members, some of whom are facing their own public protests.
The League, which groups the Arab world's 22 states, has been under pressure to speak out more openly following popular uprisings that ousted Arab heads of state in Tunisia and Egypt and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
PROTESTERS OUTSIDE LEAGUE HQ
Hundreds of supporters of pro-democracy activists in both Syria and Yemen demonstrated outside the League's Cairo headquarters shortly before Arab ministers arrived.
The protesters called on the leaders of both countries to step down. Yemen has seen months of mass rallies against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule.
"The Arab League is being pressured by Arab public opinion to make more effort in the coming period," Arab League chief Elaraby said in his opening speech.
The League's council stressed that the Syrian people were entitled to "live in security and dignity and to see its legitimate aspirations for political, economic and social reforms realised."
"The council also stresses that the stability of the Syrian Arab Republic is a main foundation for the stability of the Arab world and the region as a whole," the statement said in a message that analysts said was aimed to appease Damascus.
The current chairman of the Arab League council, Omani Foreign Minister Youssef Bin Alawi, earlier said the meeting was important for stability in Syria.
"We will negotiate to establish stability for the Syrian people," Bin Alawi said during the opening session.
Inside the meeting hall, television screens showed footage of dead victims of the crackdown in the Syrian cities of Hama and Deir al-Zor.
International condemnation of the crackdown escalated this month after activists said Assad sent the army into several cities including Hama, Deir al-Zor and Latakia.
Syrian authorities have blamed armed "terrorist groups" for the bloodshed and say 500 police and army have been killed. They have expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
The League, which also discussed the situation in Libya, endorsed the rebel National Transitional Council as Libya's legitimate leadership and asked the United Nations to do the same.
It also "urged the U.N. Security Council and concerned states to unfreeze the funds, properties and assets that belong to the Libyan state immediately," the statement said.
Libyan rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril and Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgam, the former Libyan foreign minister who defected from Muammar Gaddafi during the early days of the protests, both attended the meeting as representatives of the Libyan state.
In March, the League backed a U.N. Security Council resolution allowing NATO warplanes to patrol Libyan airspace and bomb Gaddafi's forces to protect civilians. Its approval was seen as necessary for that operation to go ahead.
At the start of the meeting, delegates cheered as the rebels' flag was raised among flags of other Arab states instead of Gaddafi's green banner.
(Reporting by Ayman Samir; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Alison Williams)