The Arab League said on Thursday it will call on the U.N. Security Council to take action to protect civilians in Syria, as U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon announced that the regime in Damascus was “in contravention” of an agreed peace plan by keeping troops and heavy weapons in cities.
“The Arab League will assign its Arab representatives in the U.N. Security Council in the meeting set to take place May 5 to ask the Security Council to protect Syrian civilians immediately," the Arab League said in a final statement after a meeting in Cairo.
The statement dropped a reference included in an earlier draft seen by Reuters to Chapter 7 of the Security Council charter, which allows it to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
The latest diplomatic push by the bloc of Arab states came as the U.N. secretary general said
was “gravely alarmed” by reports of shelling of populated areas in Syria, in a statement released after the death of scores of people in a massive explosion in the protest city of Hama.
Activists blamed the regime and put the death toll at 68, including 16 children, while Syrian state media said 16 were killed when a bomb that “terrorists” were building exploded prematurely inside a house.
More than 9,000 people have died since a revolt erupted against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in March last year, the United Nations says, while non-government groups put the figure at more than 11,100.
Under strong international pressure, Assad’s government has agreed a troop withdrawal from cities as part of a six-point peace plan for Syria agreed with U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
The truce, which officially started on April 12 but has barely held, is to be monitored by 300 U.N. observers due to arrive in Syria in coming weeks. A small advance team is already on the ground.
Ban “remains deeply troubled by the continued presence of heavy weapons, military equipment and army personnel in population centers, as reported by United Nations Military Observers,” said the U.N. statement.
This was “in contravention of the Syrian government’s commitments to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from these areas,” said Ban, demanding that Assad’s government “comply with its commitments without delay.”
Western nations have expressed strong doubts that the U.N. observers will be able to work. The United States has already warned it may not renew the mission’s initial three month mandate.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said the Security Council must be ready to order sanctions if Syria flouts commitments to halt violence.
“We condemn what remains the government’s refusal to abide by its commitments, its continued intense use of heavy weaponry in Hama and elsewhere, which continues to result in large numbers of civilian deaths every day,” she told reporters.
Syria’s main opposition group the Syrian National Congress said: “We are calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council so that it can issue a resolution to protect civilians in Syria.
“Hama in recent days, and following a visit by U.N. observers, witnessed a series of crimes... that left more than 100 people dead and hundreds wounded because of heavy shelling,” it said in a statement.
On Wednesday, France raised the prospect of military intervention if Annan’s peace plan fails.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the international community would have to move to a Chapter Seven resolution, which authorizes foreign powers to take measures including military options.
However, Juppe added that such a resolution, which was also mooted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, was unlikely to pass, alluding to previous Security Council vetoes by Russia and China.