Arab states cut commercial ties with Syria


CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab League approved sweeping economic sanctions on Syria on Sunday over its crackdown on protesters and the Qatari foreign minister said other powers might intervene if Arabs fail to contain the crisis.

The sanctions, including a travel ban on top Syrian officials and a freeze on assets related to President Bashar al-Assad's government, were approved by 19 of the League's 22 members to be enforced immediately.

Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had previously said Arabs wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened in Libya, where a U.N. Security Council resolution led to NATO air strikes.

"All the work that we are doing is to avoid this interference," Sheikh Hamad said, adding that if the international community did not see that Arabs were "serious" he could not guarantee that such action would be avoided.

The sanctions also aim to halt dealings with Syria's central bank and stop investments in Syria, he told a news conference.

Arab ministers were spurred to action by worsening violence in Syria and by the Assad government's failure to meet a deadline to let in Arab monitors and take other steps to end its crackdown on an eight-month-old uprising.

"It is a symbolic but a huge step. The Arab League has tried to stop civilian killings but it failed. Now it is removing the Arab cover from the regime, which could make it easier for the international community to intervene," said prominent opposition figure Walid al-Bunni.

"No one wants to see ordinary Syrians deprived of essential supplies. The Arabs are telling Bashar: 'You are killing the people to whom you say you belong. We will not receive you in our capitals. We're freezing your assets. We are not investing in your country,'" Bunni said from Cairo.

Even so, the measures could plunge Syria deeper into economic crisis.

Syrian official media quoted an undated letter by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to the Arab League as saying that Damascus views the Arab plan for monitors as interference in its affairs.

"We trust that all Arab countries stand against foreign interference in the affairs of Arab countries. Therefore we hope that the League will issue (a statement) confirming this," he said.

The League for decades avoided action against its 22 members.

But it has been galvanised by pressure from Gulf Arabs already angry at Syria's alliance with regional rival Iran, by the political changes brought about by Arab uprisings, and by the scale of the Syrian bloodshed.

Security police fired live ammunition at a funeral of an activist in the city of eastern Deir al-Zor, injuring 10 people, while in Rankous, a town 30 km (19 miles) north of Damascus where protesters regularly demand Assad's removal, security forces killed two civilians, local activists said on Sunday.

"The funeral came under fire at the mosque when the crowd started chanting 'the people weren't the downfall of the regime'," said one of the activists, who gave his name as Abu Jassem.

In al-Ghab plain, northwest of the city of Hama, troops arrested tens of villagers in the town of Kfar Nbouzeh, burnt six houses belonging to activists and ransacked shops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Even regular food stores were not spared from the ransacking," said Rami Abdelrahman, the Observatory's director.

The United Nations says the crackdown has killed over 3,500 people. Along with peaceful protests, some of Assad's opponents are fighting back. Army defectors have loosely grouped under the Syrian Free Army and more insurgent attacks on loyalist troops have been reported in the last several weeks.

The defectors are drawn from the majority Sunni rank and file. The military and security apparatus are dominated by officers from Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam that has controlled the majority Sunni country for the last five decades.

Hundreds of people, including civilians, soldiers and army deserters, have been killed in Syria this month, possibly the bloodiest since the unrest broke out in March inspired by uprisings which overthrew leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Alongside the mainly peaceful protests, armed insurgents have increasingly attacked military targets in recent weeks. Officials say 1,100 security force members have been killed.

Damascus, where the Assad family has ruled for 41 years, says regional powers helped incite the violence, which it blames on armed groups targeting civilians and its security forces.

Non-Arab Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was in Egypt for the Arab ministerial meetings, adding pressure on Damascus from its biggest neighbour.

The stepped-up pressure on Assad follows a French proposal for "humanitarian corridors" to be set up through which food and medicine could be shipped to alleviate civilian suffering.

But United Nations humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos suggested that setting up humanitarian corridors into Syria or buffer zones on the border could be premature.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Patrick Werr and Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, and Patrick Markey in Baghdad; Writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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