Syria rally to demand Arab action
Damascus - Hundreds of thousands of Syrians protested nine months into their uprising on Friday, demanding the Arab League hasten its response to a bloody crackdown on dissent, activists said.
The protests came after Russia, a long-time ally of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, drew a guarded response from Western governments to signs of toughening its stance on Syria at the UN Security Council.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 200 000 protested in the besieged central city of Homs alone, venting their frustration at the Arab League for postponing a meeting on Syria scheduled for Saturday.
It also said at least six civilians were shot dead by security forces in Homs. A seventh person, wounded at dawn in Daraa province, cradle of the anti-regime dissent, also died of his wounds.
"More than 200 000 demonstrators came out in several neighbourhoods of the city after Friday prayers," the Britain-based group said.
Demonstrators also took to the streets of Damascus and the protest hubs of Daraa, Deir Ezzor and Hama, according to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which organises the protests.
Organisers had urged protesters to press the 22-member Arab bloc over its postponement of the emergency foreign ministers' meeting to give more time for Damascus to agree to a deal to end the bloodshed to avoid sanctions.
They had set the slogan for the protests as: "The Arab League is killing us - enough deadlines."
On November 27, the Arab bloc approved a package of sanctions against Damascus after it failed to meet a deadline to agree to an observer mission to monitor implementation of an Arab plan to protect Syrian civilians.
But earlier this month, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Arab League Syria would accept monitors under certain conditions, including the lifting of the sanctions.
The bloc's number two Ahmed Ben Helli said late on Thursday that Saturday's planned meeting had been postponed indefinitely while talks continued with Damascus on its offer.
However, a League taskforce chaired by Qatar will gather in Doha on Saturday with delegates from Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Oman, Ben Helli said.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi also met on Thursday with members of the opposition Syrian National Council on the eve of the opening in Tunisia on Friday evening of a three-day congress of the group.
SNC leader Burhan Ghaliun said it was vital that the opposition close ranks after the formation in Istanbul on Thursday of the National Alliance, another opposition grouping.
"We need to unite the opposition and make it stronger. We need to emerge from this congress with a higher level of organisation, clearer targets and more momentum," Ghaliun said.
The SNC is generally regarded as the main civilian opposition coalition and includes the LCC, the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties.
However, announcing the formation of the National Alliance, Mohammed Bessam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, charged that the SNC had "lost contact with local revolutionary movements in Syria".
The opposition has been pushing hard for the Security Council to take tough action against Damascus after a European draft that would have threatened "targeted measures" against regime figures was blocked by Beijing and Moscow in October.
A draft of the new text circulated by Russia late on Thursday still makes no mention of sanctions but strongly condemns the violence by "all parties, including disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities".
In line with Moscow's insistence that its ally has been facing an armed rebellion not the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations cited by the West, the draft also raises concern over "the illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed renewed criticism of that position but said the US hoped it could work with Russia on the text.
"There are some issues in it that we would not be able to support. There's unfortunately a seeming parity between the government and peaceful protesters," she said. "But we are going to study the draft carefully."
The Syrian crisis, which the UN estimates has left more than 5 000 people dead since mid-March, was to be discussed at talks between US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara.
And a Kremlin source said Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara would meet officials in Moscow in a bid to defuse the crisis.
"He is to be received in Moscow for a serious conversation," said the source, who was not identified, adding that "anyone who thinks we are going to praise the vice president of Syria or pat him on the head is wrong".
It was not clear when the talks would be held, but unconfirmed reports said Shara arrived in Moscow on Friday and would meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Meanwhile, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki told France 24 he opposes foreign intervention in Syria - reflecting the position of Russia and China.