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.
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.
Besieged Bani Walid Residents Told to Flee, Al-Jazeera
“Libyan rebels battling the remnants of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in his remaining stronghold of Bani Walid have given residents there two days to leave before a threatened assault.
The warning came on Tuesday amid fears for the fate of civilians trapped in the last redoubts of Gaddafi, dislodged from power and now on the run after 42 years as leader of the oil-rich nation.
“I think only 10 per cent of the people are Gaddafi supporters. They are fanatics. And the rest are waiting to be liberated. We have given them two more days to leave the city,” Abumuslim Abdu, a fighter with the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday.”
Syria Activists Call for Day of Anger over Medvedev Stance, The Daily Star (Beirut)
“The latest violence comes after pro-democracy activists called for a “day of anger” Tuesday in protest at Russia’s backing for President Bashar Assad, whose regime has waged a deadly six-month crackdown on protesters.
“Do not support the killers. Do not kill the Syrians with your position,” activists urged Russia in a posting on The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook page that has been the engine for the revolt.
They wrote that a “day of anger” against Russia would be held Tuesday.”
Suleiman Leaves Court After Testifying in Mubarak Case, Al-Masry Al-Youm
“Suleiman is the most prominent official from Mubarak’s regime to be questioned by the prosecution since the trial began in August. According to some Egyptian news reports, Suleiman’s statements during investigations in April confirmed Mubarak’s involvement in the protester deaths.
The state-run newpaper Al-Akhbar reported on 26 May that Suleiman claimed during interrogations that Mubarak was completely aware of every shot fired at protesters in Tahrir Square. However, other news reports reported that Suleiman had not heard the former president ordering protesters be killed.”
Libya’s New Leader Calls for Unity and Moderation, The Guardian
“He said Islamic sharia law should be the main source of legislation but added: “We will not accept any extremist ideology, on the right or the left. We are a Muslim people, for a moderate Islam, and will stay on this road.”
Jalil also emphasised that women had played an important part in the revolution and would continue to do so. “Women will be ambassadors,” he said to cheers from women and girls in the crowd waving flags. “Women will be ministers.” Many of the women were dressed in the red, black and green of the revolution.”
Syrians appeal for international protection, Al-Jazeera
“Syrians have taken to the streets for another Friday of protests, calling for international help to stop the security crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s government. Large protests called “Friday for International Protection” were reported in cities including Qamishli in the northeast, Homs and Hama in the centre of the country, and Deir al-Zor in the east.
Activists and rights group say at least 2,200 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March. Al Jazeera’s Omar al Saleh, reporting from Ramtha on the Jordan-Syria border, said the calls vary from the execution of Assad to international protection.”
“Around 30,000 protesters gathered in Tahrir Square Friday to protest the ruling military council’s performance and their numbers continued to rise into the late afternoon for the demonstration dubbed “Correcting the Path of the Revolution.” Some of those present since midday prayers were discouraged that turnout was lower than organizers had hoped for, however the crowd was steadily swelling and was expected to reach 50,000 before the demonstration’s scheduled 6 pm end time.
“It is the first Friday after Ramadan, and summertime. I believe that the number will increase in the coming demonstrations,” said political activist and blogger Ahmed Gharbeia.
Several marches feeding into Tahrir from around Cairo have been adding a steady stream of protesters. One group came from the Israeli Embassy in Dokki, while the April 6 Youth Movement also came from Mohandiseen with at least 500 supporters. Islamist groups were, as expected, not present in the square. April 6, secular revolutionary groups, as well as the football fans known as Ahly and Zamalek “Ultras” led most of the chants.”
Russia seeks Syrian detente, The Daily Star (Beirut)
“Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday that some Syrians protesting against Bashar Assad’s regime are “terrorists” and that the world should urge both sides to refrain from violence, as opposition groups made their first direct calls for foreign intervention in the country to halt the violence.
In an interview with the France-based news channel Euronews, Medvedev admitted the Syrian authorities had been guilty of using “disproportionate force” against protesters, but called the country a “friend” of Russia.
“It’s true that we recognize that there are problems in Syria. We’re aware of the disproportionate use of force, and of a large number of victims, and it’s something we disapprove of,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the network.”
“An excavation of mass graves began on Friday in search of the 1,200 victims of a Libyan prison massacre, in an attempt to close the most infamous chapter of Muammar Gaddafi‘s bloody four-decade rule.
Diggers found multiple bodies in a single grave – one of 38 graves at a cemetery in Tripoli. It is believed the remains had been moved there from the notorious Abu Salim jail, scene of the killing of inmates in 1996.
More than 1,000 bodies are still thought to be within the grounds of the prison. Excavations there have been delayed as officials await the arrival of experts and equipment for DNA testing. Digging is expected to begin in a week.”
Squeezing Syria, The Washington Post
“The Assad regime is once again demonstrating that it has no strategy for responding to popular protests other than mass murder — and that appeals for “reform” by foreign governments are foolish. The latest statesman to be embarrassed is Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, who was due to fly to Damascus on Wednesday to remonstrate with the dictator. His visit was abruptly postponed to this weekend — allowing the assault on Homs to continue unhindered. Arab news reports said Mr. Elaraby hoped to persuade the regime to end the killing and take steps to satisfy the opposition. If so, he will be disappointed — like the Obama administration, European governments and Turkey before him.
Only the end of Mr. Assad’s regime will end the violence. So far the estimated death toll is well above 2,000, though the real total is unknown. Foreign governments cannot topple Mr. Assad — Syrians must do that. But outsiders can help by abandoning efforts to “engage” the dictator and instead stepping up political and economic sanctions.”
Ahmadinejad Urges Syria to End Crackdown, Al-Jazeera
“Most of the previous Iranian comments on the unrest in Syria had focused on a “foreign conspiracy” driving the instability but there has been a subtle shift in Tehran’s tone. Late last month, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, encouraged the Assad regime to answer to some of his people’s “legitimate demands” while reiterating Iran’s support Syria.
Ahmadinejad’s comments seem to build on the slight shift and appear to reflect growing impatience with Assad in Iran.”
Saleh Consent Sought for Power Transfer Plan, Al-Jazeera
“The plan aims to end months of anti-government protests by easing Saleh out of office before his term ends in 2013. “It has been agreed that Saleh would issue a decree vesting his deputy with constitutional powers to hold talks with the parties that have signed the Gulf initiative and agree on a timetable and mechanism to implement it,” said the GPC’s Assistant Secretary-General Sultan Barakani.
He said that the implementation of the plan proposed by the GCC “would lead to holding early presidential elections that would guarantee a peaceful and democratic transition of power”. The plan, drawn up by the six Gulf states in co-ordination with the European Union and the United States, called for the immediate formation of a government of national unity with Saleh stepping down a month later in return for a promise of immunity, but the president has repeatedly refused to sign it.”
Syrians Report Killings as Troops Hunt for Defectors, The New York Times
“Across Syria, residents and activists have reported the defection of hundreds of soldiers from the mostly Sunni army, which is led by officers from the minority Alawite sect, to which Mr. Assad belongs. All told, the activists estimate, about 700 soldiers have gone over to the opposition since mid-March. Scores more have reportedly been killed for refusing to shoot at unarmed protesters, and others have simply deserted and gone into hiding.
Activists hope that the defections will weaken the army and eventually help in getting rid of Mr. Assad. But other observers noted that the deserters were mainly low in rank and that they were not numerous enough yet to significantly weaken the army.”