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Syria defiant as pressure mounts on President Bashar Assad

November 14, 2011 |  8:50 am

Protesters burn an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Saturday
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT — Pressure was mounting Monday on the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad as European foreign ministers agreed to extend sanctions against Syria, and King Abdullah of Jordan called on Assad to step down.

Syria remained defiant, however. “The Syrian people should not be worried because Syria is not Libya,” the country's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said in a nationally televised address.

Moallem's comments demonstrate how the specter of Libya’s long-time ruler, Moammar Kadafi, and his ultimate  fate — ousted by rebels and later killed in ignominious fashion — haunts Assad's administration.

Syria is entering its eighth month of unrest, which, according to the United Nations, has resulted in some 3,500 dead, mostly civilians, in a  government crackdown on protesters. The Assad regime says armed Islamic “terrorists” are behind a U.S.-backed “conspiracy” that has killed more than 1,000 security personnel.

"If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down," King Abdullah told the BBC in an interview.

But Abdullah cautioned that a handover alone would not be sufficient to end the upheaval in Syria.

"If he was to say I'm going to step down, but let's have new elections, let's reach out to the people, let's get this as a national dialogue, then it would work," Abdullah told the BBC. "But if you're just going to remove one person and put another person in, I think that you'll continue to see more of the same."

Abdullah's comments came after the Arab League on Saturday moved to suspend Syria because of what Arab ministers called its failure to implement a league-brokered peace plan meant to ease the crisis in Syria. The Arab League pact mandated that Damascus withdraw forces from populated areas, release prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition, among other steps.

Moallem labeled the league’s decision “a very dangerous step.” But he did issue an apology for attacks on foreign missions in Syria by pro-Assad loyalists following the league's action.

Whether the faltering peace plan can be revived remains unclear. Arab ministers gave Syria until Wednesday to demonstrate that it was complying.

On Sunday, Syria's reeling government put out an "urgent" call to Arab leaders for further talks in the apparent hope of tempering Arab condemnation and forestalling the prospect of foreign intervention in its crisis.

“It's very important in the European Union that we consider additional measures to add to the pressure on the Assad regime to stop the unacceptable violence against the people of Syria,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters on his way into a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, according to Reuters news agency.

The ministers agreed to extend a travel ban and freeze the assets of 18 more Syrians associated with a violent crackdown, according to news reports. The names of the individuals will be released Tuesday. Plans were also approved to prevent Syria from accessing funds from the European Investment Bank, the reports said.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed reporting.

Photo: Protesters burn an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Saturday. Credit: Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty Images

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