Syria faces new Arab sanctions deadline

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The Arab League served Syria notice to endorse Friday a plan for the dispatch of observers to monitor unrest in the country or face crippling sanctions.

Turkey said the 1100 GMT deadline was Syria's "last chance" to heed world calls for an end to its lethal crackdown on anti-regime protests which the UN says has claimed more than 3,500 lives since mid-March.

"It is a last chance, a new chance for Syria," Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Istanbul as the clock ticked down.

But Syria's Cold War ally Russia dismissed the looming deadline.

"At this stage, what we need is not resolutions, sanctions or pressure, but inter-Syrian dialogue," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in Moscow.

Activists called for demonstrators to flood the streets nationwide after the main weekly Muslim prayers in support of dissident army officers.

"The free army protects us," said a message on the Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the key motors behind more than eights months of protests seeking to unseat the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

"The free army is the guardian of our peaceful revolution," it said, in reference to the rebel Free Syrian Army which has claimed numerous attacks on regular troops in recent weeks.

At least 51 people were killed in violence across Syrian on Thursday, including 23 regular army soldiers and 15 deserters, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Thirteen civilians also died, 12 of them in the flashpoint protest hub of Homs, the group said.

The Arab ultimatum was issued on Thursday at the end of a crisis meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, during which the 22-member bloc also for the first time called on the United Nations to help resolve the crisis.

Long resistant to drawing the international community into the Syria crisis, the League agreed to ask UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "to take all measures to support the efforts of the Arab League to resolve the critical situation in Syria."

It also invited Syria to sign an agreement in Cairo on Friday at 1:00pm (1100 GMT) that would allow observers into the country to monitor the situation on the ground.

Should Syria fail to sign, finance ministers will meet on Saturday to vote on sanctions against Damascus, including the suspension of flights, and the freezing of the government's financial assets, it said.

Syrian officials and analysts said this week that Arab sanctions on Syria -- which is also facing a raft of US and European punitive measures -- could choke the country's economy.

Syria depends on its Arab neighbours for half or its exports and a quarter of its imports.

"If that is to happen, it will be very unfortunate because the damage will be to all sides," Economy Minister Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar told AFP in an exclusive interview.

"We don't expect all Arab countries to yield or participate in sanctions," he added. "In fact, we are almost certain that some Arab countries will not participate," he said.

Lebanon has already said it will ignore any Arab decision to impose sanctions on Syria.

Lebanon, along with Yemen, voted against a decision earlier this month to freeze Syria's membership in the Arab League, while Iraq abstained.

"I don't think that Iraq will take part in sanctions against Syria," a government official with close ties to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told AFP earlier this week.

As Friday's death toll swelled to at least 51, the head of the Free Syrian Army, Riyadh al-Asaad called for foreign air strikes on "strategic targets" in Syria to speed up the fall of the regime.

"We are not in favour of the entry of foreign troops as was the case in Iraq but we want the international community to give us logistical support," Colonel Asaad, told AFP.

"We also want international protection, the establishment of a no-fly zone, a buffer zone and strikes on certain strategic targets considered as crucial by the regime," he said in a telephone interview from Turkey.

According to the FSA chief, the rebel force now has 20,000 men in its ranks and is growing by the day.

The group claimed its men ambushed a military bus on Thursday killing seven military pilots and their driver.

© 2011 AFP

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