Diplomats seek ways to stop Syria crackdown

AP News
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Posted: Apr 26, 2011 5:13 PM
Diplomats seek ways to stop Syria crackdown

France and Italy on Tuesday called on Syria's President to stop firing on his people, while the British foreign secretary called for international sanctions if President Bashar Assad does not start implementing reforms.

The White House also stepped up its condemnation of Assad's regime, but stopped well short of demanding his ouster. U.S. officials said Washington has begun drawing up targeted sanctions against him, his family and his inner circle to boost pressure on them to halt the repression.

Diplomats were also seeking votes in Geneva at the Human Rights Council in hopes of calling a special session later this week to address the crisis in which Assad's security forces have used violence to extend his family's grip on four decades of power.

The flurry of talks reflected the growing sense of international outrage since Monday when Assad sent troops and tanks into Daraa, the focal point for peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, where they opened fire on civilians, killing many.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain was working with other members of the U.N. Security Council "to send a strong signal to the Syrian authorities that the eyes of the international community are on Syria," but warned some nations at the U.N. are likely to oppose any punitive action. It will discuss Syria later Tuesday.

"Syria is now at a fork in the road, its government can still chose to bring about the radical reform which alone can provide peace and stability, and for the long term, and we urge it do so," Hague said.

In Rome, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed concern over the crackdown and demanded an end to the violence.

"The situation has become unacceptable," Sarkozy said during a joint news conference. "You don't shoot at demonstrators."

Berlusconi said they were both very worried about the situation.

"We make a strong appeal to the authorities in Damascus to stop the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations," he said. "We urge the Syrian authorities to follow through in a concrete and immediate way on the reforms they had announced."

The French foreign ministry's deputy spokesperson Christine Fages also confirmed that "discussions are in progress among Security Council members and within the European Union" toward an international response to Assad.

The violence also fueled opposition by human rights groups, and a growing number of governments, to Syria's all-but-certain election to the 47-nation Human Rights Council. It is one of four candidates selected to fill four Asian seats, and Syria can only lose if diplomats find another candidate to enter the race, or of it fails to win a majority of votes in the May 20 election in the 192-member General Assembly.

But it was not just Western nations voicing concern about Syria Tuesday.

Thirteen human rights groups from the Arab world issued a statement Thursday urging Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to publicly denounce Syria's candidacy and to call on Arab states not to vote for Syria in the upcoming election.

Since then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has phoned Assad to urge restraint, while Turkey's ambassador to Damascus met Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar to express Turkey's "deep concern and sorrow over loss of many lives," the prime minister's office and Turkish media reported.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the violence against peaceful protesters in Syria "deeply shocking" and urged Assad to immediately embrace political reforms.

"There will have to be consequences if his government maintains its current policy," he said Tuesday, without elaborating.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council was meeting behind closed door late Tuesday for a briefing from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and to discuss a draft statement proposed by four European nations _ France, Britain, Germany and Portugal _ that would strongly condemn the violence against demonstrators.

All 15 council members must approve such statements, and several council diplomats were pessimistic that Lebanon and Russia, both with close ties to Syria, would go along.

China's U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong told reporters before the meeting started that "we want to get engaged with everybody and try to find a solution and to push for a political solution."

Almost 400 people have been killed in Syria since Assad unleashed a furious crackdown in mid-March, with 120 alone dying over the weekend, according to the U.N. and human rights groups.

The U.N. on Tuesday appealed to Assad to withdraw his forces, whose killings have been accompanied by a large but undetermined number of arrests, said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"The government's response has been erratic, with announcements of welcome reforms, such as the lifting of the decades-long state of emergency, followed a few days later by tanks in the streets and more killing," he told reporters.

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations in New York, David Stringer in London, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.