Arab League calls for immediate end to Syrian violence


ARAB LEAGUE secretary general Nabil al-Arabi yesterday called for an immediate halt to violence in Syria, saying dialogue was the only solution to the crisis as tanks rolled into the eastern city of Deir al-Zor.

Opposition sources said at least 42 people died in the city and nine in the town of Huleh in the central Homs province.

The government claimed that troops had been deployed in Deir al-Zor at the request of tribal elders, who said the city had been taken over by “armed gangs”.

Opposition spokesmen say the city has been surrounded since last month, when an estimated 500,000 people staged a mass protest there against the government.

Tribesmen have reportedly been angered over the arrest of Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, a leading figure in the Baqqara tribe. He has sharply criticised the military and pro-regime militiamen for attacks on Deir al-Zor.

There is concern that the crackdown could provoke Sunni tribesmen on both sides of the frontier who resent the domination of the government by heterodox Shia Alawites, the community to which the Assad family belongs.

Pope Benedict XVI also joined the chorus of protest. He reiterated an earlier appeal to both the authorities and the population to re-establish peaceful relations. He urged the government to make an “adequate response to the legitimate aspirations of the citizens, respecting their dignity” and ensuring the region’s stability.

On Saturday at a meeting of Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus, Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said “free and fair” parliamentary elections will be held by the end of the year. He promised that the new legislature would respond to the demands of the Syrian people.

“The ballot box will be the determining factor and it will be up to the elected government to review draft bills and to decide [whether or not] to adopt them,” he said.

His announcement followed a presidential decree issued last week permitting the formation of political parties. The four-year term of the outgoing parliament has expired and elections had been expected this month.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon spoke for the first time since May to president Bashar al-Assad, who had refused to take calls. A statement released by Mr Ban’s office said he had expressed his “strong concern and that of the international community at the mounting violence and the death toll” in Syria over the past week.

When Dr Assad spoke of “the large number of lives lost among the security forces and the police”, Mr Ban replied that “he condemned violence against both the civilians and the security forces”, the UN press office said.

Mr Ban urged Dr Assad to end the use of force and halt arrests so that the reforms he has promised would gain credibility.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally, warned Dr Assad that Ankara’s “patience is wearing out” due to the government’s actions against protesters. He plans to send foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Syria tomorrow for talks which could shape Turkey’s policies toward Damascus.

Dr Assad’s political adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said Mr Davutoglu could expect tough talk in Damascus. She also dismissed the call issued by the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council for an “immediate end to violence and bloodshed” and the serious implementation of reforms.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said: “I don’t believe that Assad has a political future ahead of him which is supported by the Syrian people.”