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Middle East

Arab League punishes Assad with sanctions

The Arab League has voted to impose sanctions on Syria in a bid to force the regime to end its bloody crackdown on an eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and head off the prospect of unwanted international intervention.

The league's unprecedented decision to act in response to Syria flouting an Arab peace plan is a humiliating blow for Mr Assad, who had positioned himself as a champion of Pan-Arabism. His regime yesterday said the 22-member body had betrayed Arab solidarity.

Following the vote, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said that Arab powers had voted overwhelmingly in favour of sanctions in order to "avoid any suffering for the Syrian people". He added that the group had been spurred to act decisively to prevent foreign intervention.

The sanctions follow similar moves by the EU and the US, and include a ban on senior Syrian officials travelling to Arab countries and a freeze on its government assets. Sanctions have already taken a toll on the country's economy, particularly the oil industry.

The move comes amid mounting international condemnation of the regime's efforts to crush a popular uprising that began largely peacefully in March, and has been repeatedly portrayed by Mr Assad as a foreign-backed armed revolt against his rule.

The violence continued yesterday, with reports of more than 23 civilian deaths at the hands of government forces, most of them around the region of Homs and near the capital, Damascus. It is estimated that more than 3,500 people have been killed since the protests began.

Defections by Syrian soldiers and the move by some protesters to take up arms to defend themselves has moved the uprising into a more dangerous phase in recent weeks. Some claim it has driven the country to the brink of civil war and raised the prospect of sectarian violence.

At the beginning of this month, the Arab League pushed Syria to accept a peace plan that called for the withdrawal of troops from residential areas, the release of political prisoners and the government to allow a 500-strong observer mission into the country. Syria initially agreed, but has failed to follow through. Hundreds of protesters have been killed this month alone.

The move to approve sanctions marked a rare moment of decisiveness by the Arab League, traditionally viewed as more concerned with propping up autocrats than condemning them.