Arab League demands Syria dialogue in Cairo as Damascus flatly rejects Arab foreign ministers meeting resolutions

Syria’s opposition council threatens to ask for foreign protection

Ban Ki-moon urges Assad to stop violence as international circles warn of civil war

Assad forms committee to draft new constitution

Damascus reconsiders Arab, international economic agreements

Syria's official media lashed out at the Arab League Wednesday, accusing it of serving US and Israeli interests as the regime continued its brutal crackdown on a seven-month popular protest, with 10 civilians reported killed.

Two teenage girls and a woman were among those killed Tuesday in separate violence in the central flashpoint province of Homs and in and around the village of Qusayr bordering Lebanon, a watchdog group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four of the victims were killed by gunfire of the pro-government "shabiha" militiamen in the Homs district.

Two others were killed in clashes between the army and gunmen suspected to be army deserters in a village near Qusayr, including a woman who was hit by a stray bullet, the watchdog reported.

The teenage girls were killed when troops engaged in clashes with suspected defectors near Qusayr, when their home was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that also wounded four family members.

A young man died when security forces opened fire as they carried out raids in the town, and several were wounded, said the Observatory, adding that the victim's brother was arrested.

Three other people were killed in separate violence, it said as the army and security forces pressed on with a crackdown on anti-regime opponents and hunted suspected army defectors.

Syrian forces raked homes with heavy machine-guns as they raided neighborhoods searching for suspects wanted by the authorities, the Observer said.

The Observatory also reported that a civilian, who had been wounded on Tuesday on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, died early Wednesday.

Activists had said security forces on Tuesday shot dead four people in Qusayr and in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the anti-regime protests that erupted in mid-March.

The United Nations estimates more than 3,000 people, including 187 children, have been killed in a fierce crackdown on dissent in Syria.

Arab League attempts to help defuse the deadly violence - specifically a call for a dialogue between the government and the opposition - was met with harsh criticism by the official Al-Thawra newspaper.

"It is no longer surprising to see the Arab League, which is supposed to be concerned with joint Arab action, turn into an instrument of injustice aimed at destabilizing Syria," the newspaper said.

The daily said the 22-member Arab League was "hostage to powers following the agenda of aggressors like the United States, Israel and their European allies."

"Following years of inaction, the Arab League has now become a tool of destabilization, and is acting against Arab interests," said the newspaper.

At an urgent session in Cairo Oct. 16, the Arab League called for "national dialogue" in the Egyptian capital between Syria's government and the opposition by the end of the month to help end the violence and avoid "foreign intervention" in Syria.

Syria's representative to the Arab League, Youssef Ahmad, slammed what he said was a "conspiracy" against Assad's regime.

Protests against the Assad-controlled Baath Party, which has ruled Syria unchallenged for close to 50 years, have shown no signs of dying down despite a rising death toll.

On Tuesday Syrian state television aired a broadcast of what it said was a pro-Assad rally in the second city of Aleppo, Syria's economic hub, claiming it was attended by a million supporters of the embattled Assad.

Syrian opposition leaders meeting in Sweden called for international observers in their country but largely opposed foreign military intervention, organizers said Monday.

The opposition group leaders who met at the weekend agreed on "the international community's role, demanding to have observers on site, and that minority groups should be given legally binding protection" once a new regime is in place, Jens Orback, the secretary general of the Olof Palme Centre, told reporters.

As for what happens with the current regime of Bashar al-Assad, the verdict is clear, he said, pointing out that all opposition leaders agreed "it must be toppled".

Also during the conference, "there was nearly a consensus against military intervention and in favor of political and diplomatic intervention", participant Ghied Al Hashmy, who lives in Berlin, told reporters in the Swedish capital through a translator.

"The participants were very welcoming of the idea of having international observers who could move about freely in the country and observe the situation," she added.

"The Syria of the future will be built on a basis of pluralism, of democracy," another participant, Faiez Sara, said. Some 90 representatives of the Syrian opposition, including members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), participated in the weekend conference organized by the Olof Palme Centre.

The recently formed SNC includes most of Assad's opponents, including committees organizing protests on the ground, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as various Kurdish and Assyrian parties.

The council has been touring capital cities to rally support from the Arab and Western world.

According to the United Nations, the Assad regime's relentless crackdown on dissent has claimed more than 2,900 lives since March.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon Monday urged President Bashar al-Assad to immediately stop the killings of civilians, a day after the Arab League called for "national dialogue" to end violence sweeping Syria.

"There are continuous killings of civilian people. These killings must stop immediately," the UN chief said in Bern.

"I told Assad: 'Stop before it is too late'," said Ban, noting that thousands have perished in the regime's brutal crackdown on dissent.

"It is unacceptable that 3,000 people have been killed. The UN is urging him again to take urgent action," he said.

The UN secretary general also called on Assad to accept an international commission of inquiry into rights violations.

In April, the UN Human Rights Council ordered a probe into the situation in Syria but Damascus blocked investigators from entering the country.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Friday that more than 3,000 people, including 187 children, have been killed in the fierce crackdown on anti-regime protests that have roiled Syria since mid-March.

Ban's call came as a rights group said five Syrian soldiers were killed during clashes with gunmen suspected to be army defectors in the flashpoint central province of Homs on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said two civilians were also killed on Monday, both in the city of Homs itself.

"Five soldiers were killed and others wounded as a result of clashes pitting the army and security forces against gunmen believed to be defectors at a checkpoint near the town of Qurayn in Homs province," the Observatory said in a statement.

It added that some "20 soldiers fled to the surrounding orchards."

In another confrontation with gunmen thought to be defectors, in the northwestern province of Idlib, "17 in the army's ranks were wounded," the Britain-based watchdog said.

It also reported that Syrian security forces opened fire in the Bab al-Sabaa residential area of Homs, a hotbed of dissent, killing one person and wounding six.

"Another civilian was also shot dead by security forces during a raid in the Al-Khalidiyeh neighborhood," it added.

In Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League said after an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers that it would make contact with the Damascus government and a raft of opposition groups with the aim of launching "national dialogue within the seat of the Arab League and under its guidance within 15 days."

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, the chair of the meeting who issued the statement, had insisted the gathering was not convened "under any agenda but to show concern for Syria and the Syrian people. Your brothers want to help."

Gulf states requested the meeting to discuss "the situation in Syria, which has deteriorated sharply, particularly in its humanitarian dimensions, and steps that could help end the bloodshed and halt the machine of violence."

Assad's regime blames "armed gangs" for the violence that has wracked Syria for the past seven months, but activists say most of the deaths are caused by security forces putting down non-violent protests.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network spurring protests, meanwhile accused Syrian security forces of intensifying their crackdown on doctors who treat wounded demonstrators.

"Security forces recently intensified their campaign against doctors, hospitals and private clinics suspected of treating people wounded in pro-freedom rallies" without notifying security services, the LCC said in a statement on Monday.

The group said attending physicians are required to immediately notify security services of the arrival of a wounded person, regardless of the severity of his injuries, which invariably leads to the patient's arrest.

The Violations Documenting Centre, a partner of the activist network, said 250 doctors and pharmacists have been arrested since the anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March, 25 of them in the past few weeks.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday appointed a committee to draft a new constitution within fours months, as activists reported more killings, arrests and gunfire in several cities.

The official SANA news agency said Assad issued a decree establishing a national committee to draft a new constitution in a period "not exceeding four months from the date of its creation."

The 29-member committee, headed by former justice minister Mizhar al-Annbary, includes Qadri Jamil, a communist member of the so-called "internal opposition" movement.

Mohammed Said Bkheitan, a senior official in the ruling Baath party, said in the week that the new document would require a two-thirds approval of the Assad-dominated parliament before being submitted to a referendum.

A new constitution has been a key demand of a protest movement that erupted in March 15 -- initially calling for greater freedoms and later demanding the ouster of the Assad regime.

Activists, meanwhile, reported at least six people killed by security forces on Saturday, which marked seven months of the revolt.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a members of its network, Ziad Rafiq al-Obeidi, was killed by security forces in Deir al-Zour. He had gone into hiding in August during military operations in the area.

In Homs, a hotbed of dissent, the Syrian army backed by armored vehicles cordoned off and stormed several neighborhoods, including Qusayr and Warsheh, which were rocked by heavy gunfire, said the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), an anti-regime activist network.

The Britain-based Observatory, quoting activists, confirmed security force operations in Homs, and said at least three people were killed in the city and one nearby.

"The army opened fire on all the entrances of the Al-Nazihin neighborhood in Homs, leading to the death of a young man who was heading to work," it said.

Two other people were killed in the city while an 18-year-old youth was shot dead in Talbisseh area of Homs province, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, in Damascus, security forces shot one person dead at a funeral, the LCC said.

"A young man was killed when security forces opened fire on a funeral procession for the child martyr Ibrahim al-Sheban," in Midan, a commercial neighborhood of Damascus, LCC reported.

The activist network said that more than 15,000 people, including women and children, came out to mourn the boy, who was one of 12 killed on Friday when security forces fired at anti-regime demonstrators in several towns and cities.

In Idlib, a northwestern province near Turkey, Syrian troops pushed an operation to hunt down defectors, arresting 31 people, the Observatory said.

"Since dawn, Syrian security forces have conducted a search and arrest campaign in and around the (Idlib village of) Kfar Nubul looking for an intelligence officer who deserted," the watchdog said.

The LCC for its part said gunfire was heard in several towns in Idlib, citing reports of defections in the area and a night demonstration broken up by security forces.

And gunfire rocked "most of the neighborhoods" in the flashpoint southern city of Daraa, where the movement calling for greater freedoms and the fall of Assad's regime started in mid-March.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Friday that more than 3,000 people, including 187 children, have been killed in the fierce crackdown on dissent.

But security forces are facing mounting armed resistance and defections, according to activist reports, with clashes between soldiers and defectors leaving 36 dead, including 25 soldiers, on Thursday alone.

Pillay said Syria risked "a full-blown civil war" unless the international community took action.

Arab foreign ministers will meet in Cairo on Sunday to discuss Syria's crackdown on protests at the request of oil-rich Gulf states, Egypt's official MENA news agency reported.

The Syrian economy is buckling under the pressure of sanctions by the West and a continuing popular uprising, posing the greatest challenge to President Bashar Assad's government as the pain is felt deeply by nearly every layer of Syrian society.

With Syria's currency weakening, its recession expanding, its tourism industry wrecked and international sanctions affecting most essential sectors, the International Monetary Fund now expects Syria's economy this year to shrink by at least 2 percent.

Through nearly seven months of protests and a brutal crackdown that has killed more than 2,900 people, Assad and his political supporters have demonstrated a cohesiveness that has surprised even his critics. Differences that may exist have stayed inside a ruling clique that draws on Assad's own clan and sect, and the security services have yet to fracture.

But regional analysts and officials in Turkey and the United States say the faltering economy presents a double blow to a government that had once relied on its economic successes as a crucial source of legitimacy. As many Syrians, poor and rich, feel the effects of the revolt in their daily lives, a sense of desperation is echoed in the streets -- even in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two largest cities and economic centers.

While neither has risen up like other Syrian cities, complaints are growing, and U.S. and Turkish officials say they believe that the merchant elite in both cities will eventually turn against Assad.

"I can no longer afford to buy anything for my family," said economic analyst Ibrahim Nimr, based in Damascus, the capital. "I am not making any more money. I am facing difficulties, and I don't know what to do."

A Damascus businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said, "People are not buying anything they don't need these days, just barely the necessities."

U.S. and Turkish officials say a collapse is not imminent, and the government can probably survive through the end of the year. But they now believe it is possible that the toll of the sanctions and protests could bring down Assad in six to 18 months.

"We're all waiting for the thing that will crack them," an Obama administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And it will be the economy that will wake everybody up, both those who support him and Assad and his circle."

Revenues from oil and gas exports, which account for as much as one-third of state revenues and are the single biggest source of foreign currency, will dry up at the beginning of November, when a European Union ban on imports will fully come into force.

The unrest has paralyzed the tourism industry, which brings in $7.7 billion a year. Several Damascus hotels said they did not have any bookings for now or anytime in the future, and some hotel owners said they closed their facilities over the summer because they could no longer afford to pay salaries and bills.

For now, in spite of the fraying economy, the government seems buoyed by a sense of confidence over having blunted some mass protests this summer in such cities as Hama and Deir al-Zour. Syrian officials have faced sanctions before, only to weather them and seek to rehabilitate themselves once conditions shifted in the region.

Syrian officials also received a lift when China and Russia last week vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned violent oppression of anti-government demonstrators.