France, partners planning Syria crisis group: Sarkozy

PARIS Sat Feb 4, 2012 4:48pm EST

PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday France was consulting with Arab and European countries to create a contact group on Syria to find a solution to its crisis after Russia and China vetoed a resolution at the U.N. Security Council.

France and Britain had crafted the resolution, which condemned the Syrian government's violent crackdown on 11 months of protests and backed an Arab League peace plan that would see President Bashar al-Assad give up power.

Sarkozy, speaking after his Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the twin veto had paralysed the international community, accused Moscow and Beijing of "encouraging the (Syrian) regime to continue with its cruel policies without an end.

"France is not giving up," Sarkozy said in a statement, saying France was in touch with Arab and European partners to create a "Friends of the Syrian People Group" that would marshal international support to implement the Arab League plan.

Sarkozy did not give further details on the initiative.

Last year he set up a Libya contact group to create a political roadmap backed by international players as part of efforts to oust Muammar Gaddafi, although Western powers have ruled out a Libya-style military intervention in Syria.

Russia and China joined forces in a double veto to quash the resolution despite the other 13 council members voting in favor of the measure, which would have said that the council "fully supports" the Arab League plan.

Juppe, who had earlier warned the veto-wielding countries, said everything had been done to accommodate them.

"This (veto) paralyses the international community," Juppe said on France 2 television. "We could not accept equating a regime which is capable of crimes against humanity with opponents who are often fighting unarmed."

The diplomatic maneuvers were lent urgency by reports from Syrian activists that more than 200 people had been killed in shelling by government forces in the restive city of Homs.

The resolution had been watered down to try to win Moscow's backing by excluding any mention of an arms embargo, sanctions, the departure of Assad or possible military action.

"NOT HOPELESS"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had given some hope saying the draft resolution was "not hopeless," but warned of a "scandal" if it was voted in its current version.

"Instead of stopping its policy of repression, the Syrian authorities have jumped a new hurdle in its savagery: the massacre in Homs is a crime against humanity and those responsible will have to answer for it," Juppe said.

Syria denied shelling the area and said Internet video of corpses was staged. It is not possible to verify activist or state media reports as Syria restricts independent media access.

Russia had said its main objection was that the draft resolution set down measures to be taken against Assad's government, but not against armed groups who it said were manipulating peaceful protesters.

France has consistently said it could not accept a resolution that blamed equally both sides for the violence, which French officials estimate has left 6,000 people dead.

France's U.N. ambassador said the Syrian people would not be left to a tragic fate and that Paris would work with the European Union to impose new sanctions on Damascus.

"The father killed en masse, the son is doing the same," Gerard Araud said, recalling a 1982 massacre in the Syrian city of Hama carried out by the forces of Assad's father Hafez al-Assad, then president, to crush an Islamist uprising.

"Horror is hereditary in Damascus."

Minor scuffles broke out earlier in the day at the Russian embassy in the French capital during a pro-Assad demonstration.

About 20 supporters of the Syrian president were confronted by about 50 people against the government, according to a Reuters witness. Nobody was injured, but the police stepped in to make some arrests.

(Additional reporting by Claire Watson; Editing by Alison Williams)

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