BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria said on Monday an Arab League decision to suspend its membership and impose sanctions was “an extremely dangerous step” at a time when it was struggling to implement a plan to end violence and open dialogue with the opposition.
Syria says it has withdrawn troops from most urban areas and released 535 prisoners arrested since the beginning of an eight-month protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year rule.
The government also offered an amnesty to armed insurgents under the terms of the initiative agreed with the Arab League two weeks ago to end unrest, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in a news conference in Damascus.
“The decision represents an extremely dangerous step for present and future Arab initiatives and the aims of the Arab League,” Moualem said. He called on the Arab League to send observers to examine Syria’s implementation of the deal.
“I repeat here Syria’s welcoming of the Arab League to bring its observers and experts, both civilian and military, and the media, to examine what is happening and the implementation of the initiative.”
Syrian authorities have barred most foreign media from the country making it difficult to verify accounts of violence from activists and authorities.
Syria, which sees the Arab League plan as a two-sided deal, has argued that neighboring countries need to help Syria secure its borders against what it says are “armed outlaw groups” working inside the country.
Moualem pointedly called for cooperation from northern neighbor Turkey, a former ally with whom relations have grown fraught as Ankara steps up condemnation of Syria’s crackdown on protests.
“The implementation of the Arab plan must be accompanied by the securing of borders by neighboring countries ... and I mean here specifically the flow of weapons from Turkey and the transfer of money to the leaders of armed groups.”
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in Syria’s crackdown on protests demanding an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Damascus blames armed groups for the violence and says 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.
Syria has sought to contain violence, Moualem said, but argued that implementation of the Arab League plan remained difficult because of the presence of armed groups.
“We sought to show our commitment to the Arab League initiative and we have removed army positions from most cities, replacing them with forces for preserving security,” he said.
In Hama and Homs, which has seen the highest death toll and become a center for an emerging armed uprising, activists have reported dozens of deaths in recent days as a military crackdowns on protests there continues.
Moualem said the army still had the right to act should soldiers or citizens feel threatened. “Self-defense is legal, and the protection of citizens is a duty,” he said.
Human rights groups says security forces have repeatedly fired on unarmed protesters. Human Rights Watch said last week the “systematic nature of abuses against civilians” in Homs amounted to crimes against humanity.
The foreign minister said he was confident Russia and China would continue to block Western efforts at the United Nations to condemn Syrian actions, and also played down the prospect of any Western military intervention in Syria.
“Syrians should not fear a repeat of the Libya scenario in Syria,” he said, arguing that Western and Arab countries knew they may pay a higher military price to confront Syria’s army.
Moualem said Damascus was organizing a dialogue with opposition figures and “all elements of Syrian society.”
“There are millions of Syrians not represented by the government or the opposition, so we are thinking of expanding the dialogue,” he said, arguing that Syria’s crisis was closer to being resolved.
“We have reached the beginning of the end of the crisis.”
Many prominent opposition figures reject dialogue with authorities while the crackdown on protests continues.
Syria called on Sunday for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the unrest. Moualem said if the Arab League ignored its request, it would show that the 22-member organization had given up on helping Syria resolve the impasse.
“We have faith in the wisdom of Arab leaders and we still believe the Arab initiative is the basis for emerging from the crisis,” he said. “If they do not respond ... it is a clear message that they have abandoned an Arab country.”
Editing by Richard Balmforth