Arab world turns on Assad and calls for end to killings

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Arab support for President Bashar al-Assad was evaporating last night as three Gulf countries announced they were withdrawing their ambassadors after days of killings across Syria. As tanks and troops continued to hammer the eastern city of Deir-el-Zour with shells and machine-gun fire, President Assad found support for his Baathist regime draining away.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have all withdrawn their envoys since Sunday night, while in a further blow, the prime minister of Turkey, Syria's biggest trading partner, said his country's foreign minister would be arriving in Damascus today to deliver a dressing-down to the Syrian government. The developments came after an unusually strong rebuke from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Sunday, when he demanded "an end to the killing machine" in Syria.

Top officials in the Syrian regime have been targeted by a number of European and US-sponsored sanctions since the uprising began in mid-March, but until yesterday there had been little in the way of condemnation from any of the Arab states.

Yesterday's dramatic show of disapproval means President Assad, who has used brute force to try and avoid the fate of his deposed counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, now finds himself backed into a diplomatic corner.

Radwan Ziadeh, a human rights activist and one of Syria's most prominent political exiles, said: "The symbolic steps from King Abdullah, Bahrain and Kuwait are very important. There is no excuse for the United Nations Security Council to take no action now."

Last week the Security Council issued a statement condemning Syria, but drew back from rubber-stamping a resolution – the harshest measure available to members.

In an attempt to alleviate the pressure, Damascus said it would remove its defence minister, but as support for President Assad haemorrhaged last night, shells from his army's tanks were still crashing down on cities.

An eyewitness in Deir al-Zour told i the city had become a ghost town as tanks laid siege. "There are no people on the streets and the snipers on the high buildings are killing anybody they see," said the man, who did not want to be named. The reports cannot be verified because journalists are banned from Syria.