Syria calls for Arab League meet to avert suspension
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria called on Sunday for an emergency Arab summit in an apparent effort to prevent being suspended by the Arab League, but the organization said it would meet opposition figures this week who are calling for President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow.
The Arab League's decision to suspend Syria and impose sanctions over its violent crackdown on eight months of protests infuriated Damascus and triggered attacks on Saudi Arabian, French and Turkish missions in Syria on Saturday night.
The United States, France and Britain, which have all called on Assad to step aside and pressed for United Nations condemnation of Syria, praised the Arab League's suspension of Damascus, which takes effect on Wednesday.
Syrian state television said the aim of its proposed summit would be to discuss the unrest and the "negative repercussions on the Arab situation."
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said on Sunday that League officials would meet representatives of Syrian opposition groups on Tuesday, but added that it was too soon for the Cairo-based body to consider recognizing the Syrian opposition as the country's legitimate authority.
Answering a question at a news conference in the Libyan capital Tripoli, Elaraby said: "Recognition of them as a government? Maybe it is a bit premature to discuss that."
It was not clear how the 22-member Arab League would react to Syria's request for an emergency Arab summit.
It was the Arab League's decision to suspend Libya and call for a no-fly zone that helped persuade the U.N. Security Council to back a NATO air campaign to protect civilians, which also aided revolutionaries who ousted and killed Muammar Gaddafi.
Saturday's Arab League announcement did not call for military intervention, but marked a dramatic escalation in the regional response to the bloodshed in Syria.
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in the anti-Assad protests which began in March. Syria blames the unrest on "terrorists" and foreign-backed Islamist militants. It says 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.
Activists said Syrian security forces shot dead eight people who shouted slogans against Assad at a rally organised by authorities in the city of Hama on Sunday to show popular anger at the Arab League decision.
"Security forces were leading public workers and students into Orontes Square when groups broke away and started shouting 'the people want the fall of the regime," said one of the activists in Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus.
Video posted online shows a group of teenagers who broke away from the state rally running for cover down a street as the sound of automatic gunfire is heard. "God damn your soul, Abu Hafez," some of them shouted, referring to the president.
Syrian authorities have banned most foreign media from the country, making independent confirmation of reports difficult.
State television said millions of Syrians denounced the Arab League decision in demonstrations across the country and showed crowds with Syrian flags and posters of Assad in Damascus, and the cities of Raqqa, Latakia and Tartous.
Some 1,000 Assad supporters attacked the Turkish embassy in Damascus on Saturday evening, throwing stones and bottles before Syrian police intervened to break up the protest, Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency said.
Non-Arab Turkey, after long courting Assad, has lost patience with its neighbor's failure to halt the violence and implement promised reforms. It now hosts the main Syrian opposition and has given refuge to defecting Syrian soldiers.
Turkey's foreign minister met Syrian opposition members over dinner in Ankara late on Sunday, a clear diplomatic signal of its growing anger with Damascus.
Turkey called on Syria to guarantee the safety of Turkish diplomats and prosecute those behind the embassy attacks. Ankara also warned its citizens against non-essential travel to Syria.
Another group of Assad supporters armed with sticks attacked the Saudi embassy in Damascus on Saturday. Residents said hundreds of men shouting pro-Assad slogans beat a guard and broke into the embassy.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement that demonstrators "gathered outside the embassy, threw stones at it, then stormed the building." It said security forces did not react fast enough and held the Syrian government responsible.
France "very firmly" condemned "the systematic destruction of Saudi Arabia's embassy in Damascus" and attacks on its own honorary consulate in Latakia and diplomatic offices in Aleppo, and said Syrian security forces did not intervene to stop them.
"These attacks constitute a bid to intimidate the international community after the courageous decisions taken by the Arab League in response to the continuing repression in Syria," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia, worried by the growing influence of Shi'ite regional power Iran, Syria's biggest remaining backer, is one of those leading the push for stronger measures against Damascus.
The Arab League also plans to impose as yet unspecified economic and political sanctions on Damascus and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said.
Despite the increasing international isolation and domestic turmoil, Assad still enjoys support among Syria's minorities, including his own Alawite sect and Christians, wary of sectarian conflict or Sunni Muslim domination if Assad were to be toppled.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who visited Syria on Saturday, said he was worried about events there. "We saw what happened in Iraq where the Christians suffered violence (after Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003)," Kirill said.
"We hope this does not happen in Syria or Lebanon," he told reporters on his arrival in Beirut from Damascus.
A top U.S. Treasury official held talks with senior Jordanian officials and banking executives on Sunday on efforts to enforce economic sanctions against Syria.
The European Union and the United States recently expanded sanctions against Syria to put pressure on it to end the violent crackdown on demonstrators.
U.S. Treasury Department Assistant Secretary Daniel Glaser arrived in Amman after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh in Beirut.
A U.S. embassy statement said Glaser stressed the "need for authorities to protect the Lebanese financial sector from Syrian attempts to evade sanctions."
Major Lebanese and Jordanian banks have several branches in Syria that were opened in the last six years when Syria lifted restrictions on foreign stakes in the banking sector.