The Arab League had given Syria 24 hours to sign a protocol for an observer mission that would monitor efforts to implement a peace plan endorsed by Assad’s regime earlier this month.
Without that signature, the league’s social and economic council was expected to meet Saturday to consider a package of sanctions, which could include suspending flights, halting trade and financial dealings with the government and freezing its assets. But an official in Cairo told the Reuters news agency that the league would wait until the end of the day to decide what to do.
In a humiliating blow, Arab foreign ministers have already suspended Syria from the 22-member bloc for failing to implement the peace plan, which calls for a withdrawal of security forces from urban areas and dialogue with the opposition.
Syrian officials accuse the league of acting as the "tool" of the United States and Western governments. The official Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, on Friday called the threat of Arab sanctions "an unprecedented procedure" that "harms the interests of the Syrian people."
It reported large demonstrations against the Arab League in a nation that already faces a number of U.S. and European sanctions.
Syria has said that it is taking steps to implement the league’s plan, including releasing hundreds of prisoners. But there is no sign that violence is abating in what has become one of the Arab world's bloodiest uprisings.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed alarm Friday at what it described as "numerous, consistent and substantiated reports" of human rights violations in Syria, including the killing of peaceful demonstrators, the abuse of detainees, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and disappearances.
"Of particular concern are reports referring to children who have suffered torture and mutilation while detained," the panel’s head, Claudio Grossman, said in a statement.
Opposition activists said at least 26 people were killed Friday as security forces fired on anti-government demonstrators and clashed with army defectors in several cities.
More than 3,500 people have been killed in the crackdown since protests erupted in March, according to U.N. figures. The government disputes the number. It blames the bloodshed on Islamic militants and what it describes as armed gangs, saying more than 1,100 security force members have also been killed.
SANA reported Friday that 10 military personnel, including six pilots, died Thursday in an ambush between the cities of Palmyra and Homs in central Syria. Syria's military command said the attack was evidence of foreign involvement. It did not elaborate.
Syria restricts access by journalists and human rights monitors, making it virtually impossible to independently confirm either side’s account.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Syrian government supporters rally in Damascus on Friday. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press