Arab League splits delay action to stop Syrian brutality

Disagreement on sanctions as neighbours fear extremists may come to power in Damascus

Arab League divisions over whether to impose further sanctions against Syria were exposed yesterday. A number of neighbouring countries signalled opposition to tougher action against Damascus after it ignored a deadline to allow hundreds of international observers into the country.

Pressure on the Arab League to agree stronger sanctions grew yesterday, however, as evidence mounted of fresh attacks on protesters by Syrian security forces. Clashes across the country saw at least 30 people killed on Friday, with Syrian security forces operating in regions including Homs, Damascus and the southern province of Deraa.

As many as 3,500 people have died in violence since the start of protests against President Bashar al-Assad in March, according to the UN.

Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said yesterday that Baghdad would take no part in Arab League talks in Cairo last night. And Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, admitted: "We are worried about the alternative. We are afraid that if extremist forces come to power, they would be hostile to democracy, and to Iraq and the Arab League."

Foreign ministers are due to meet later today to approve tougher action against Syria, but Mr Zebari admitted that several of Syria's neighbours had reservations about the move.

"Iraq is a neighbour to Syria and there are interests – there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis living in Syria and there is trade," he said. "Lebanon also has the same idea, and Jordan, too, has shown its objection," he added. Lebanon opposed an earlier move that suspended Syria from the 22-nation league.

Turkey, however, has called for tougher sanctions and is threatening to stop electricity supplies to Syria. Its Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Syria had missed its "last chance". He added: "We have no more tolerance for the bloodshed."

Sanctions being considered by the league include suspending air flights, ending central bank and other financial dealings, and freezing Syrian state bank accounts. A ban on commercial trade is unlikely to be considered, ministers have said.

Experts say tougher Arab League sanctions could cripple Syria, which is facing punitive measures from the European Union and the US. Yesterday, Syria's Economy Minister, Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar, said the measures would be "very unfortunate" and "damaging to all sides". He said that Syria did not expect all Arab nations to participate in imposing them.

Meanwhile, a UN human rights panel expressed alarm at reports that security forces in Syria had been involved in the torture of children. The Geneva-based UN Committee against Torture says it has received "numerous, consistent and substantiated reports" of widespread abuse in the country. "Of particular concern are reports referring to children, who have suffered torture and mutilation while detained," said the panel's chairman, Claudio Grossman.

An Egyptian-based Syrian dissident claimed yesterday that Syrian agents had abducted his pregnant 25-year-old wife. Thaer al-Nashef claimed he received a text message saying she had been taken because of his outspoken attacks on Syria. She was later found unconscious in a Cairo street 24 hours after vanishing. The Syrian embassy in Egypt strongly denied any involvement.

Additional reporting by Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill

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