BEIRUT, Lebanon — As regional diplomacy and maneuvering intensified, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria faced challenges on two fronts Wednesday, with army defectors reported to have attacked an intelligence headquarters near Damascus and Arab foreign ministers meeting to endorse his country’s suspension from the Arab League.
News reports said the attack on a large air force intelligence complex near Damascus, the capital, was the first on such a major facility since Syria’s uprising began in March. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, was quoted as saying defectors used shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets and other weapons to attack the facility.
Reuters quoted anti-Assad activists as saying a gunfight erupted after the attack as helicopters circled the area.
The reported assault came hours before Arab foreign ministers gathered in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, to formalize a decision by the 22-member Arab League last weekend to suspend Syria, which said it would boycott Wednesday’s meeting.
The official Sana news agency in Damascus said the decision was taken in response to statements by Moroccan officials, who were quoted earlier as saying “Syrian colleagues” were welcome to attend the gathering.
Arab foreign ministers are to hold two sets of meetings in Rabat on Wednesday, one related to the Arab League, and the other grouping Arab states and Turkey, a central player in the growing crisis. Those moves were accompanied by signs that the opposition is gaining diplomatic ground.
On Tuesday, representatives of the Russian government and the Arab League met with political opponents of Mr. Assad, while Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, scrapped a plan to explore for oil in Syria and threatened to curtail electricity it sells to Damascus.
The developments came after what some activists portrayed as one of the bloodiest episodes in the eight-month uprising. Reports were conflicting, but one human rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said that more than 71 people were killed Monday, including 34 soldiers engaged in clashes with army defectors. If true, the deaths of the soldiers would constitute one of the highest tolls since defectors began carrying out attacks against government troops.
But unlike past episodes, when the Syrian government publicized the deaths of soldiers and security forces, official Syrian news outlets carried no reports about the clashes.
The Local Coordination Committees said it could not corroborate the Syrian Observatory’s account of the military casualties, though it also called Monday one of the uprising’s bloodier days, with at least 51 civilians killed. “We don’t have any confirmation of what they’re claiming,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the committees.
Reports of the violence emerged on Tuesday as the Syrian government announced that it had released 1,180 prisoners, in what appeared to be an effort to show flexibility and sincerity only hours before the Arab League foreign ministers were set to meet in Rabat. A terse official announcement of the prisoners’ release said only that the freed prisoners had been “involved in recent events” and had not committed murder.
Rights activists confirmed that the freed prisoners included Kamal Labwani, a prominent lawyer halfway through a 15-year sentence for having insulted Mr. Assad. Reuters quoted his daughter as saying that Mr. Labwani had no idea that Syria was in the throes of an upheaval, having been denied outside contact.
The uprising in Syria, one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East, has become the latest focal point among the Arab revolts that have toppled autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Faced with Mr. Assad’s intransigence, the normally placid Arab League voted last weekend to suspend Syria from the group. On Monday King Abdullah II of Jordan called on him to step down. King Abdullah is the first leader from one of Syria’s Arab neighbors to go that far.
On Tuesday, officials of the Foreign Ministry of Russia, which has been one of Mr. Assad’s steadiest remaining allies, met with emissaries of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group. The group said that it failed to gain Russia’s support for anything more than a dialogue with Mr. Assad.
“We want to negotiate the steps of how to change the regime, and that’s not acceptable for the Russians,” said Sammir Nachar, a member of the council.
Nonetheless, activists said the meeting itself was a possible sign of Russia’s impatience with the direction of the Syrian conflict.
At the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, the group held meetings with other representatives of the Syrian National Council and asked them to devise plans for a transition of power.
In Turkey, where the government’s relationship with Syria has been badly strained by Mr. Assad’s repression, officials said that plans for a Turkish oil company to explore for new deposits in Syria had been canceled, and that Turkish power lines into Syria might be severed. “Right now we are supplying electricity there,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters in Ankara, the capital. “If this course continues, we may have to review all of these decisions.”
While Turkey supplies only a small percentage of Syria’s power needs, the threats underscored how badly Syria’s relationship had deteriorated with Turkey, its top trading partner.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has castigated Mr. Assad before, said Turkey no longer had confidence in the Syrian government. Mr. Erdogan said he hoped that Syria, “now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”
Human rights groups calculated Monday’s death toll, raised from an initial report of 28, with the aid of telephone interviews and messages from witnesses in Syria, which has restricted foreign press coverage. The new figures make Monday the deadliest day in the country since Oct. 29, when 40 people were killed.
But the circumstances of the deaths remained unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said defectors had clashed with soldiers in the southern province of Dara’a. It said 12 defectors, 24 people it identified as civilians and 34 government soldiers had been killed. The group called the confrontations the biggest since the uprising began in the same province.
Mr. Idlibi of the Local Coordination Committees said that 28 civilians had been killed in Dara’a, and that defections had taken place there. But the group had no details on the nature of the clashes.
The United Nations said this month that at least 3,500 people had been killed in Syria since the uprising started in March. The government disputes the death toll and has blamed armed groups for the unrest.
In one incident, more than 30 troops were killed in clashes with suspected army defectors in a southern town near the Jordan border, activists say.
King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to openly urge Mr Assad to quit.
He told the BBC that if he were in Mr Assad’s position, he would start talks to ensure an orderly transition.
“I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we’re seeing,” King Abdullah stated in an exclusive interview with BBC World News television.
He said: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.
Angered by the king’s comments, about 100 Bashar supporters rallied outside the Jordanian embassy in Damascus late on Monday.
Three protesters scaled the embassy fence and took down the Jordanian flag, Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Kayed was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
The spokesman added that no-one injured during the incident.
Many Arab leaders have condemned the crackdown on months of protests in Syria, and the Arab League voted on Saturday to suspend Syria’s membership.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has reacted defiantly to the Arab League’s move, saying it was illegal and vowed to overcome “conspiracies” against Damascus.
The UN says more than 3,500 people have died since the start of the protests in March. The Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and militants.
In the latest violence, 27 civilians were shot dead by security forces in the flashpoint southern province of Deraa on Monday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In the same area, 34 government soldiers died in clashes with suspected army defectors, the Observatory said. It added that 12 deserters were also killed.
Another four civilians were killed in the central city of Homs, activists said.
Such claims are impossible to verify as the Syrian government has severely restricted access for foreign journalists.
Many Western powers have urged President Assad to stand down. Both the EU and the US have said he has lost legitimacy but have ruled out military intervention.
It added 18 Syrian officials to a list of people affected by a travel ban and asset freeze. This brings to 74 the number of President Assad’s inner circle who have been blacklisted.
The EU also approved the freezing of loans to Syria from the European Investment Bank.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he hoped the UN would finally impose its own sanctions on Syria.
Russia and China last month vetoed a Western-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning Damascus.
The US welcomed the moves by the Arab League and the EU.
The Arab League is set to hold another meeting to discuss Syria on Wednesday.
The league has already proposed sending a mission of 500 human rights and military observers, and also journalists to monitor the situation on the ground in Syria.
Syrian opposition members who were due to meet the Arab League secretary-general have been escorted away from the League’s offices in Cairo after being set upon by protesters.
The four-man delegation of the Syrian National Co-ordination Committee (SNCC), which was made up of members of the Syrian opposition from within Syria, had arrived at the offices earlier on Wednesday, but were greeted by demonstrators who threw eggs at them.
Some minor scuffles broke out but no injuries have been reported.
Hassan Abdel Azim, the opposition member heading the SNCC, managed to get inside the Arab League headquarters, and is currently meeting with Nabil al-Araby, the Arab League secretary-general.
The SNCC is a rival to the broad-based Syrian National Council group.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Jane Arraf, said Wednesday’s incident was an indication of how divided the Syrian opposition is.
She said: “The protesters, many of which are Syrian exiles, are saying that these people meeting at the Arab League are agents of the Syrian government, calling them traitors.
Arraf added that the protesters are “the ones who want action, military action, targeted sanctions, a no-fly zone, the removal of Bashar al-Assad [the Syrian president], and this is not what these opposition members are asking for.”
Earlier in the day, Thabet Salem, a Syrian journalist and author spoke to Al Jazeera about the divisions plaguing the Syrian opposition.
“First of all the opposition themselves are divided,” Salem said, between those who want foreign intervention to stop the bloodshed, and those who are against foreign intervention.
“The Syrian case is not similar to that of Libya,” Salem said, explaining that the Arab League has not been seen as exerting the same amount of pressure as it did during the case of Libya.
He said “the impression [in Syria] is that the Arab League is incapable and not serious enough to force the regime to stop what’s going on.”
Similar protests were held outside the Arab League’s offices last week when they met to draw up a proposal dealing with Syria.
The league’s plan, which was signed by the Syrian government on November 2, called for an end to violence, the release of those detained, the withdrawal of the army from urban areas and free movement for observers and the media, as well as talks between the regime and the opposition.
Syria has been widely criticised for continuing its crackdown on protesters in the week since the plan was signed.
Meanwhile activists have told Al Jazeera that eight people have been killed across Syria; two in Hama, two in Bukamal Deir Ezzor, two in Deraa, one in Homs, and one in Damascus.
Syria’s opposition has called for international intervention in the central city of Homs, one of the focal points of the country’s uprising, calling it a “humanitarian disaster area”.
The appeal, issued on Monday by the Turkey-based Syrian National Council, comes after activists said at least 17 people had been killed in the city on Sunday in an ongoing crackdown by security forces.
In a statement, the Syrian National Council urged the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and the Arab League to act “to stop the massacre committed by the regime.”
It also called on the international community to send “Arab and international observers, instantly, to the city of Homs to oversee the situation on the ground, and prevent the regime from continuing to commit brutal massacres.”
The Arab League has called a meeting in Cairo next Saturday on what it calls Syria’s failure to implement a peace plan, announced by the body last week following talks with Syrian officials.
The League said the meeting was called because of “the continuation of violence and because the Syrian government did not implement its commitments in the Arab plan to resolve the Syrian crisis.”
Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, meanwhile criticised the United States for urging suspected gunmen not to hand in their weapons to authorities under an amnesty offer, Syrian state media reported Monday.
“Syria considers the US call an encouragement for the armed groups to pursue their criminal acts against the Syrian people and state,” state television quoted al-Moallem as saying.
According to the reports, al-Moallem made the criticism in letters to his counterparts in Russia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil and the Arab League.
On Friday the Syrian government announced details regarding a week-long amnesty period, beginning on Saturday, calling on “citizens who carried weapons, sold them, delivered them, transported them or funded buying them, and did not commit crimes, to hand themselves into the nearest police station.”
“The interior ministry assures that those who turn themselves in…will then be freed immediately and it will be considered a general amnesty,” state media said.
However, in a press briefing in Washington DC, Victoria Nuland, US State Department spokesperson, advised Syrians against turning themselves in.
“I wouldn’t advise anybody to turn thmselves in to the regime authorities at the moment,” she told reporters.
At least thirteen people are reported killed in the latest clashes across Syria as the government called on armed opposition members to turn themselves in within one week to qualify for an amnesty.
As massive anti-government demonstrations took place across the country following Friday prayers, two civilians were reported to have been killed after security forces opened fire on protesters in the district of Kanaker in the capital, Damascus.
Two others were reported killed near the Syria-Jordan border. They were shot at while trying to cross the border and flee the country, according to reports.
Four deaths in the Bab Amro area of Homs came a day after 22 civilians were reportedly killed in the military crackdown on protesters there.
“Syrian security forces continue to shell and launch attacks on Bab Amro district,” said Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from neighbouring Jordan.
“At least 10 people were injured, but ambulances were prevented from entering the area to reach the wounded. And we are hearing reports that planes are still hovering over the district.”
The locations of the seven other reported deaths was unclear.
In the port city of Latakia, an activist said he counted 13 security pick-up trucks surrounding the main Arsalan mosque.
He said at least three protesters were wounded by security forces firing in front of the Bazar mosque in the centre of the city.
“They were hit and taken by the security forces. In front of every mosque in Latakia there are several hundred security personnel touting either batons, handguns, or automatic rifles,” he said.
The continued violence on Friday came as Syria’s government announced details of a week-long amnesty period, starting from, Saturday.
“The interior ministry calls on citizens who carried weapons, sold them, delivered them, transported them or funded buying them, and did not commit crimes, to hand themselves into the nearest police station,” state television said on Friday.
“The interior ministry assures that those who turn themselves in … will then be freed immediately and it will be considered as a general amnesty,” it said.
Friday’s renewed violence appeared to contravene a mediation deal agreed between Damascus and the Arab League on Wednesday which had called for Syrian troops to end their presence in cities and residential areas.
The agreement, which also called for the release of all political prisoners and monitoring of the situation inside Syria by league officials and foreign media, was announced at an emergency meeting in Cairo, where the regional body gathered to discuss plans to ease the violence and end the unrest in Syria.
The peace deal “emphasised the need for the immediate, full and exact implementation of the articles in the plan”, but members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group, have voiced serious scepticism over the government’s willingness and sincerity to put the deal into effect.
“There is no indication on the ground that the Syrian government has at all started implementing the Arab League proposal to end the unrest,” said our correspondent.
Syrian authorities have banned most independent media from the country, making it hard to verify reports of violence.
Syria and the Arab League have reached an agreement on a plan aimed at finding a solution to the months-long unrest in the country, state media reported Tuesday.
An official announcement will take place Wednesday at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo, according to Syrian state television and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
The Arab League has called on Syria’s government to end all violence against citizens, remove tanks and military vehicles from the streets of the country and release political prisoners, an official with the Arab organization said Monday.
The Arab countries made the proposal to Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, on Sunday in a meeting in Doha, Qatar. The Arab League also proposed a dialogue between Syrian officials and opposition members in Cairo starting Wednesday.
The proposals included a time frame for compliance, the Arab League official said.
The Syrian delegation left Qatar without responding to the Arab League letter, according to the Qatari national news agency.
More than 3,000 people have died in Syria since unrest broke out in mid-March, according to the United Nations. CNN cannot independently confirm individual accounts of violence because Syria’s government restricts the activity of journalists.
In early October, China and Russia teamed up to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian response to the protests and called for an immediate end to the government clampdown on the opposition.
Meanwhile, Syrians aiming to write a new constitution for the strife-torn country met Monday for the first time, according to state news reports.
President Bashar al-Assad last month announced the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution within four months, SANA reported at the time. The October 15 announcement was one of several moves the government has made to defuse protests, but they have not calmed the situation within the country.
The Obama administration pulled its ambassador out of Syria over the weekend over increasing security fears, saying that the recent string of incidents of intimidation and threats of violence made it unsafe for Robert Ford to remain in the country.
“We hope that the Syrian regime will end its incitement campaign against Ambassador Ford,” a spokesman for the State Department said, according to the Associated Press. “At this point, we can’t say when he will return to Syria.”
Ford attracted the ire of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he contacted protesters involved in the ongoing, seven-month-old grassroots movement in Syria seeking the overthrow of the 41-year-old Assad regime. There were no casualties in the attacks by pro-Assad forces on Ford’s office and home in Syria, but sources in the country told Reuters that state media coverage of Ford has been growing increasingly incisive, increasing U.S. concerns for Ford’s safety.
Ford also traveled over the summer to anti-Assad strongholds in various regions of Syria, ignoring a ban on Western diplomats traveling outside the capital city of Damascus.
From 2005 to 2009, the U.S. had no ambassador to Syria. President Obama sent Ford in January 2009 to work with President Bashar al-Assad to scale back Syria’s alliance with Iran and backing of militant groups. However, the diplomatic relationship soon soured again after Assad ignored international calls for reform in response to the Syrian branch of the Arab Spring uprisings calling for an end to Assad’s police state.
Instead, Assad used military force to crackdown on pro-Democracy protesters. International advocacy groups have since reported a death toll of up to 1,800 people and thousands of cases of torture in state-run detention centers.