King of Jordan calls on Syrian leader to step down

Abdullah says Assad must act in the interests of the people after Arab League suspends Syria

Jordan's King Abdullah heaped further pressure on President Bashar al-Assad yesterday when he called for the embattled Syrian dictator to stand down – the first Arab leader to issue such a statement.

In an unexpected remark during a televised interview, King Abdullah said it would be in the Syrian people's interests if Mr Assad were to resign. "I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down," he told the BBC.

The White House backed King Abdullah's comments last night by reiterating Washington's position that Mr Assad has lost legitimacy and must stand down. King Abdullah, whose government has criticised Mr Assad's handling of the anti-regime protest movement, also called on the Syrian President to initiate a transition of power.

"If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life," he said. "That's the only way I would see it work and I don't think people are asking that question."

Despite the diplomatic pressure, there was no let-up in violence and some 40 people were killed yesterday in fighting between troops and insurgents and army defectors near the Jordanian border, Syrian activists said.

The intervention from Syria's neighbour was another warning to the Baathist regime, which was already on the back foot after the Arab League voted on Saturday to suspend Syria's membership because of its attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators.

The suspension, spearheaded by Qatar, was greeted with scorn by Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem. He said the vote, which took place at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo, was "shameful and malicious".

"We wanted the role of the Arab League to be a supporting role but if the Arabs wanted to be conspirators, this is their business," he said.

Syria's national athletics squad has been caught up in the row. The Syrian Olympic Committee and the General Sports Federation have announced they are boycotting next month's Arab Games in Qatar's capital, Doha, in protest at the Arab League's decision.

After the vote, protesters in Damascus attacked embassies, including the Saudi and Qatari missions. The Syrian ambassador to Paris was summoned by officials after the French embassy was attacked. The Turkish government, meanwhile, was forced to evacuate non-essential staff from Damascus.

King Abdullah's intervention was welcomed by some activists inside the country. "It's a good thing," said a Damascus-based protester called Basel, contacted by The Independent. "But we want more. We want real benefits and practical steps."

Molham al-Drobi, a Saudi-based member of the Syrian National Council opposition group, was "very happy" with developments. "It means the Arab countries, with very few exceptions, have reached the conclusion Bashar al-Assad should go," he said.

The Arab League vote has also shifted attention back to the UN Security Council, which has been unable to pass any sanctions against Damascus due to opposition from Russia and China.

But James Denselow, an expert from King's College London, said: "I don't think it will have an impact ... so long as the Iranians are still with them and Russia and China are not actively working against them." Syria had already descended into civil war, he said. "I saw Al Jazeera showing pictures of burnt-out armoured vehicles in Homs," he added, saying that such images showed the "level of sophistication" being deployed by the hundreds of army defectors fighting the government. The most recent UN estimates suggest more than 3,500 civilians have died since demonstrations against the government began in mid-March.

Syrian ministers have invited Arab League officials to visit the country before Syria's suspension takes effect tomorrow. The invitation came as the European Union imposed more sanctions against 18 high-level Baathist figures.