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Arab League mounts pressure on Syria as Free Army calls for air strikes

The Arab League has given Syria a day to sign a protocol allowing monitors into the country or the regional body will press ahead with plans to impose economic sanctions, Egypt’s envoy to the League said on Thursday as Free Syrian Army called for foreign air strikes on “strategic targets” in Syria.

The sanctions could include a suspension of commercial flights to Syria and a halt to dealings with its central bank, the envoy, Afifi Abdul Wahab, told reporters in Cairo, according to Reuters, as Syrian activists told Al Arabiya that as many as 29 civilians were killed by the gunfire of security forces on Thursday.

“Tomorrow is the deadline for Syria to sign. If they don’t sign, the economic and social council (of ministers) will meet on Saturday to discuss economic sanctions,” he said adding that if Syria did not sign foreign ministers would meet again on Sunday to review the proposed sanctions.

One Arab government representative at the League said measures which the 22-member organization might consider on Thursday included imposing a travel ban on Syrian officials, freezing bank transfers or funds in Arab states related to Assad’s government and stopping Arab projects in Syria.

“There are many ideas and suggestions for sanctions that can be imposed on the Syrian regime,” the official, who asked not to be identified’ told Reuters.

The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on senior Syrian officials, its oil sector and several state businesses. An EU official said on Wednesday the bloc was considering fresh financial sanctions.

Calling for striking “strategic targets”

Meanwhile, Free Syrian Army chief Riyadh al-Asaad on Thursday called for foreign air strikes on “strategic targets” in Syria as part of a drive to topple the regime, in a telephone interview with AFP.

“We are not in favor of the entry of foreign troops as was the case in Iraq but we want the international community to give us logistical support,” said FSA chief Colonel Asaad, who is based across the border in Turkey.

“We also want international protection, the establishment of a no-fly zone, a buffer zone and strikes on certain strategic targets considered as crucial by the regime,” he said.

In contrast, the leader of the main Syrian opposition group in exile said after talks in Paris on Wednesday that his organization does not want to see rebels launch armed attacks on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Amid fears of the deadly anti-regime protests in Syria since mid-March turning into civil war, Burhan Ghaliun of the Syrian National Council said the FSA should try to avoid direct confrontation with regime troops.

“We would like this army to carry out defensive actions to protect those who have left the (regime's) army and peaceful demonstrations, but not take on offensive actions against the army,” he said.

Seven military pilots were killed when gunmen attacked their bus in the center of the country on Thursday, opposition sources told AFP.

The attack, carried out by “armed Bedouins,” took place near the city of Palmyra, said an opposition member based in the flashpoint region of Homs, and was claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army.

At least 11 security force members were killed by army defectors in Syria’s flashpoint city of Homs on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement sent to AFP in Nicosia.

“Eleven soldiers and members of the security forces were killed in skirmishes on Thursday with deserter troops in the Homs region,” the rights group said.

On Tuesday, six children and five mutinous soldiers were among 34 people killed across Syria, according to the Britain-based group.

We are not in favor of the entry of foreign troops as was the case in Iraq but we want the international community to give us logistical support

Free Syrian Army chief Riyadh al-Asaad

France seeks Arab support for a humanitarian corridor

Meanwhile, France said on Thursday it will seek Arab support for a humanitarian corridor in Syria, the first time a major power pushed for international intervention in the eight-month uprising against President Assad.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who first floated the proposal for humanitarian intervention on Wednesday, gave more details of the plan and said he would propose it to a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers gathering in Cairo to discuss Syria.

Iraq’s foreign minister said Damascus had accepted a plan to send monitors to Syria, seen as a last-ditch attempt to avert Arab League sanctions. There was no immediate confirmation from Syria, according to Reuters.

After months in which the international community has seemed determined to avoid any direct entanglement in a core Middle East country, the diplomatic consensus seems to be changing.

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership two weeks ago, accusing Assad of failing to fulfill a Nov. 2 pledge to halt the violence and withdraw troops from cities.

This week, the prime minister of regional heavyweight Turkey - a NATO member with the military wherewithal to mount a cross-border operation - compared Assad to Hitler, Mussolini and Qaddafi, and called on him to quit.

Efforts to protect civilians

Juppe said international monitors should be sent to protect civilians, with or without Assad’s permission. He insisted the proposal fell short of a military intervention, but acknowledged that humanitarian convoys would need armed protection.

"There are two possible ways: That the international community, Arab League and the United Nations can get the regime to allow these humanitarian corridors," he told French radio on Thursday. "But if that isn't the case we'd have to look at other solutions ... with international observers,"

Asked if humanitarian convoys would need military protection, he said: “Of course... by international observers, but there is no question of military intervention in Syria.”

He added that he had spoken to partners at the United Nations and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and would speak later on Thursday to the Arab League. On Wednesday Juppe also embraced the exiled opposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate group that France sought to work with.

In a sign of Paris’ growing frustration at events on the ground, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said France was particularly concerned with what was happening in the city of Homs, which has become a centre of resistance against Assad.

“Information from several sources tell us that the situation in Homs is particularly worrying. It would appear to be under siege today, deprived of basic materials and experiencing a brutal repression,” he said.

“A way must be found so that this city is supplied with humanitarian aid,” he added.

Washington repeated an appeal on Wednesday for U.S. citizens to leave Syria: “The U.S. Embassy continues to urge U.S. citizens in Syria to depart immediately while commercial transportation is available,” the embassy said on its website.

The U.S. navy said the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush arrived this week in the Mediterranean. It made no reference to the unrest in Syria and said the ship would continue through the Mediterranean en route to the United States.

A Western diplomat in the region said about the U.S. aircraft carrier: “It is probably routine movement but it is going to put psychological pressure on the regime, and the Americans do not mind that.”

There are two possible ways: That the international community, Arab League and the United Nations can get the regime to allow these humanitarian corridors," he told French radio on Thursday. "But if that isn't the case we'd have to look at other solutions ... with international observers

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe

“The darkness of the Middle Ages”

Syria’s bloodshed could pitch the Muslim world into “the darkness of the Middle Ages,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Wednesday.

A day earlier, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan criticized the “cowardice” of Assad, once a close ally, for turning guns on his own people.

Erdogan spoke of the fate of defeated dictators from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to Muammar Gaddafi, who was lynched by a mob last month at the end of an uprising that ultimately won the support of the West and Arab League states.

Speaking after a meeting with Syria’s opposition National Council on Wednesday, Juppe described it as “the legitimate partner with which we want to work” -- the biggest international endorsement yet for the nascent opposition body.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said allies were watching the situation in Syria with great concern, but reiterated that the alliance had no intention to intervene in Syria as it had done in Libya.

“There’s been no request and there is no specific discussion about these proposals,” she said in response to Juppe’s proposal.

She said the situation in Syria could not be compared with Libya, where NATO had a clear United Nations mandate for intervention and support from the Arab League.

The violence in Syria itself showed no signs of abating.

Authorities blame the bloodshed on armed groups, who they say have killed more than 1,100 members of the security forces since the unrest erupted in March. Syria has barred most independent media from Syria, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.

Thousands of soldiers have deserted the regular army since it started cracking down on the eight-month protest movement, inspired by Arab uprisings which have toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

On Wednesday, state news agency SANA reported funerals of nine soldiers and policemen killed by “armed terrorist groups.”

Assad, 46, seems prepared to fight it out, playing on fears of a sectarian war if Syria’s complex ethno-sectarian mosaic shatters and relying on support of senior officials and the military.

However many experts say Assad, who can depend mainly on the loyalty of two elite Alawite units, cannot maintain current military operations without cracks emerging in the armed forces.