Arab League to meet as Syria violence continues

At least 30 civilians and 26 soldiers were killed in Syria ahead of Friday prayers.

Amman: At least 30 civilians and 26 soldiers were killed in Syria ahead of Friday prayers, activists said, as a seven-month crackdown on pro-democracy protests becomes more violent and attacks on security forces increase.

Friday prayers provide a rare venue for Syrians to gather in defiance of efforts to put down protests, and activists reported a heavier security presence around mosques in big towns last week, preventing prayers in some from being held.

The daily death-toll this month has been one of the highest in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad`s rule.

Thousands marched on Thursday at funerals for 24 civilians killed by pro-Assad forces the day before, activists said, including eight in Damascus in one of the bloodiest attacks on demonstrations in the capital.

Arab states remain widely divided over how to deal with Syria`s crackdown on protesters after a peace plan brokered by its neighbours on November 2 failed to stem violence, and there is little likelihood a meeting on Saturday will bridge the gap.

Several countries oppose bringing serious pressure to bear on Assad and it looks unlikely that foreign ministers will freeze Syria`s membership of the Arab League at the Cairo meeting, officials due to attend say.

If Arab states isolated Syria, that would help Assad`s sternest critics in the West gain a broader consensus for tougher sanctions and, perhaps, some form of intervention.

Saudi Arabia leads a group of Gulf states including Qatar, Oman and Bahrain that are ready to increase the pressure on Assad, an ally of their rival Iran.

Diplomats say they are opposed by countries such as Yemen --in the grip if its own uprising; Lebanon -- where Syria`s influence looms large; and Algeria, seen as more sympathetic to Assad and nervous about the message any intervention in Syria would send to its own frustrated population.

The continued bloodshed on Syria`s streets since the Arab Peace Plan was brokered last week seems to have done little to shift the mood in favour of tougher action.

In Syria, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the authorities will adhere in a week to the plan, under which Syria pledged to pull the military out of restive cities, set political prisoners free and start talks with the opposition, which wants to remove Assad and introduce democratic freedoms.

"Syria, which announced its commitment to the Arab plan, affirms that it will implement most of its clauses in a week, unlike what is being spread by unfair satellite channels," Moualem said in a letter to the Arab League secretary general, excerpts of which was published on official media.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that government forces had killed at least 104 people and carried out crimes against humanity in the central city of Homs since the plan was agreed.

Bureau Report

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