REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Supporters of President Bashar Assad attacked diplomatic missions in Syria after the Arab League voted Saturday to suspend the country's membership if his regime fails to take immediate steps to implement a peace plan designed to end months of violence.
While the opposition celebrated the Arab League decision, Syria's state-run media reported that thousands of government loyalists, some hoisting images of Assad, expressed their outrage late Saturday in the streets of leading cities, including Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. All are strongholds of support for the embattled Syrian president.
Crowds armed with sticks and knives attacked the Saudi Embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and the French and Turkish consulates in Latakia, Reuters news agency reported. The French and Turkish governments have condemned Assad’s handling of the crisis.
The United Nations estimates that 3,500 people have been killed in almost eight months of bloodshed.
Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo apparently felt compelled to respond to what many view as Assad’s defiance of their peace blueprint, which mandates that Syria withdraw armed forces from populated areas, release political prisoners and begin a dialogue with opponents, among other steps.
The suspension would take effect Wednesday, a delay that appears designed to give Syria one more chance to comply with the league-brokered plan approved this month.
Qatar’s foreign minister suggested that Arab nations withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, a step that some, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have already taken.
Syria maintains that it is complying with the peace pact, saying it has released more than 500 prisoners and has declared an amnesty for gunmen who surrender and “have no blood on their hands.”
The opposition calls the moves phony and says Damascus has stepped up attacks, especially in the central city of Homs, focal point of the rebellion, where rights activists say scores have been killed in the last two weeks. On Saturday, the opposition reported that at least 18 more people had been killed in political violence, including eight in Homs.
Assad has said his government is fighting armed Islamic extremists funded from abroad. Damascus says more than 1,000 security personnel have been killed and that armed “gangs” have engaged in a campaign of ambushes, bombings and assassination.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: This image made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency is said to show protesters in front of Qatar's Embassy in Damascus on Saturday. Credit: SANA