UN must send in troops now, says Arab League

Cairo meeting ends in call for immediate ceasefire backed by presence of peacekeeping force

Leaders of the Arab League called for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force for Syria yesterday, saying the country's neighbours could no longer stand by and watch the bloodshed.

The proposal for troops on the ground, even in a solely peacekeeping capacity, represents a major strengthening of the 22-member body's stance towards Damascus. It came as ministers at the Arab League meeting in Cairo scrapped the idea of a continued observer mission and the head of monitoring team, the Sudanese general Mohammed al-Dabi, stepped down. The mission was suspended last month after being criticised for doing little to limit President al-Assad's crackdown.

"Until when will we remain spectators?" Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at yesterday's meeting. "It is a disgrace for us as Muslims and Arabs to accept [the bloodshed]."

The 22-member pan-Arab body, which also called for a ceasefire, said the proposal on a peacekeeing force will be put to the UN Security Council. With veto-holders Russia and China still staunchly supporting Syria, the proposal is unlikely to go far, but is an indication of the increasing isolation of the regime.

Syria immediately rejected the proposal last night. Speaking on state television Syria's ambassador to Egypt and the Arab League said Qatar and Saudi Arabia – two of the driving forces behind the region's strengthened stance towards Damascus – were "living in a state of hysteria". The UN General Assembly is expected to meet today for a discussion on the worsening security situation in Syria, where Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will deliver a statement outlining the human rights abuses committed during the 11-month onslaught.

According to one senior UN source, the meeting could be followed by a General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown, which has claimed at least 5,400 lives. Meanwhile, the leader of al-Qa'ida Ayman al-Zawahiri yesterday called on Muslims to support the rebels, to oust the "pernicious, cancerous regime". His call will heighten fears that the terrorist group will try to hijack the protest movement.

Violence continued to claim lives on both sides yesterday, with the rebel stronghold of Homs reported to be under continued shelling. On Saturday, a Syrian general was assassinated outside his home in Damascus. The Syrian Arab News agency said Brigadier General Issa Kholi had been attacked by three gunmen as he left his residence.