Britain meets Syria opposition, condemns crackdown
LONDON (Reuters) - World powers will do as much as they can to turn up the heat on the Syrian government, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday, calling President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on eight months of protests "appalling and unacceptable."
Hague held talks with representatives of Syrian opposition groups, intensifying British contacts with them just days after he appointed a former ambassador to lead London's coordination with Assad's opponents.
"I think the Assad regime will find that more and more governments around the world are willing to work with the opposition ... as part of the increasing pressure on this regime," Hague said after the meeting.
The talks follow the expiry at the weekend of an Arab League deadline for Assad to pull the military out of urban centers, free political prisoners and start a dialogue under the 22-member group's initiative to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Assad said in an interview published on Sunday he would not bow to international pressure to stop the crackdown on the protests against his rule in which the United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed.
On Monday activists said Syrian forces killed two youths when they stormed a neighborhood in the city of Homs looking for a soccer star Abdelbasset Sarout, who has been leading protests against Assad.
Footage of Sarout, goalkeeper for the al-Karama soccer club, singing protest songs at anti-Assad rallies have been broadcast on YouTube and Arab satellite channels.
The 21-year-old is one of several Syrian celebrities who have supported the uprising, including singer Asala, actress Mona Wassef and Fadwa Suleiman, another actress who has led protests in Homs.
The state news agency said security forces killed four "terrorists" in Homs on Monday. It also said an ambulance driver and his colleague were wounded when an "armed terrorist group" fired at them.
Syrian authorities have barred most independent journalists from entering the country during the revolt, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
"The behavior of that regime is appalling and unacceptable and of course we will do what we can to support democracy in Syria in the future," Hague told the BBC earlier on Monday.
He said international pressure had already been ratcheted up on Syria, pointing to European Union sanctions on Syria's oil exports. "We are working this week on a further round of sanctions which I hope we can agree next week," Hague added.
An EU diplomat said that at a meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU states discussed extra sanctions on Syria expected to be agreed ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers on December 1.
He said the sanctions were likely to target more individuals responsible for the violence and entities that support and fund the Syrian government, and to include a range of steps against the financial and banking sectors.
On top of the U.S. and European sanctions, Syria has alienated former ally Turkey and, in a dramatic deepening of its regional isolation, been suspended by the Arab League and threatened with Arab sanctions.
But international consensus over Syria has proved elusive.
Russia, which joined China last month in vetoing a Western-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad's crackdown, accused Western nations of undermining the chances of a peaceful resolution in Syria.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the West was urging Assad's opponents not to seek compromise.
"We see a situation in which the Arab League is calling for an end to violence and the start of talks, while absolutely contradictory calls are coming from Western capitals and the capitals of some regional countries," he said.
Those nations, which Lavrov did not name, are "directly recommending that the opposition not enter dialogue with the Assad regime," he said, according to Interfax. "This is like a political provocation on an international scale."
The United States, one of Assad's most vocal critics, said on Monday its ambassador would not return to Damascus by Thursday's U.S. Thanksgiving holiday as originally planned.
Ambassador Robert Ford, whose high profile support for protesters antagonized authorities in Damascus, was called back to Washington last month after attacks on the U.S. embassy and on Ford's diplomatic convoy.
ATTACK ON BUS
Early on Monday gunmen opened fire on a convoy of Turkish buses carrying pilgrims inside Syria, Turkish media reported.
Reports of the incident were fragmentary and Turkish authorities said they were still trying to establish what had happened. Some of the travelers said the attackers appeared to be Syrian soldiers.
Alongside the mainly peaceful street protests against Assad, army deserters have launched a series of attacks against forces loyal to the president.
Within hours of Assad ignoring Saturday's Arab League deadline, residents said two rocket-propelled grenades hit a major ruling party building in Damascus, the first such reported attack by insurgents inside the capital.
A statement by the Syrian Free Army, comprising army defectors and based in neighboring Turkey, initially said it carried out the attack but the group later withdrew its claim.
In an interview with the British Sunday Times newspaper, Assad said he had no choice but to pursue the crackdown on unrest because his foes were armed.
"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue. Syria will not bow down," he said.
A senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday it was seeking wider access to detainees held in Syria's teeming prisons, but negotiations with Syrian authorities are proving difficult.
Syria opened its prisons for the first time ever in early September, promising to allow access to all facilities under the interior ministry. But the visits stalled after a first visit to Damascus central prison at the time.
"So far we have not been able to access other places of detention. We are absolutely negotiating with Syrian authorities and are still hoping to be able to have access," ICRC director-general Yves Daccord told a news briefing.
Hague said his meeting with the opposition did not mean Britain was about to offer them formal recognition, "partly because there are differing groups."
"There isn't a single national council as there was in Libya ... and the international community has not yet reached that point," he said.
At the talks he met representatives from the National Council and the National Coordination Body, which has been more explicit in its opposition to military intervention in Syria.
"We discussed the situation in Syria and the possibility of international protection to ... stop the bloodshed and provide protection for civilians," SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun said.
He told reporters the council wanted the West to work with Turkey and Arab states so that Assad could be "given a strong signal that he should leave and abandon power."
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Jonathon Burch in Ankara, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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