Arabs, US urge UN council to act on Syria

UNITED NATIONS Tue Jan 31, 2012 5:17pm EST

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Backed by the United States, the Arab League and Qatar urged the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to take swift action to stem the escalating violence in Syria and endorse an Arab plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

"We all have a choice: stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the 15-nation council.

"The United States urges the Security Council to back the Arab League's demand that the Syrian Government immediately stop all attacks against civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations," she said.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called on the council to take "rapid and decisive action" while Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani warned that Syria's "killing machine is still at work."

"Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight," Elaraby said, calling for council backing for a European-Arab draft resolution that endorses the Arab plan.

He said Arab nations were trying to avoid foreign military intervention in the 10-month-old Syrian crisis that has killed thousands of civilians, a point Sheikh Hamad also emphasized. The Qatari prime minister suggested the council should use economic leverage instead.

"We are not calling for a military intervention," Sheikh Hamad said. "We are advocating the exertion of a concrete economic pressure so that the Syrian regime might realize that it is imperative to meet the demands of its people."

INTERVENTION A 'MYTH'

"We are not after regime change, for this is a matter that is up to the Syrian people to decide," he added.

Their public rejection of foreign military intervention appeared aimed at Russia, which Western diplomats are worried may veto the draft resolution on Syria out of fear that it could lead to a Libyan-style military operation.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the council the resolution "does not call for military action and could not be used to authorize it." French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described the idea of such intervention as a myth.

"We are ready to vote now on the text," Juppe said.

Both Sheikh Hamad and Elaraby blamed the crisis in Syria squarely on the government, whereas Russia has sought to blame both the opposition and government equally. Elaraby said the opposition had resorted to arms because of what he called "the excessive use of force" by Syrian authorities.

Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari rejected the suggestion that his government was responsible for the crisis, accusing the United States and its European allies of wanting to conquer new territory in the Middle East.

He said Western powers yearned for "the return of colonialism and hegemony."

Clinton said that by pitting ethnic and religious groups against each other, Syrian leaders were bringing their country closer to the brink of civil war.

"The evidence is clear that Assad's forces are initiating nearly all the attacks that kill civilians, but as more citizens take up arms to resist the regime's brutality, violence is increasingly likely to spiral out of control," she said.

(Additional reporting by Edith Honan; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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