Friends of Syria conference in Tunis condemns Syrian regime’s violations, calls for bringing crime perpetrators to justice

Saudi FM Prince Saud says no way out of crisis except through voluntary or forced power transfer, terms Syrian regime as “occupation authority”

Syrian opposition hails Saudi Arabia’s position but says Tunis resolutions not up to what is required

Clinton says Assad will pay heavy price

Western and Arab nations mounted the biggest diplomatic push in weeks to end Syria’s crackdown on the opposition on Friday, but the talk in a marble-lined Tunisian hotel risked being overtaken by the increasingly vicious armed conflict on the ground.

Foreign ministers from more than 50 countries in Tunis for the inaugural "Friends of Syria" meeting marshaled international condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ratcheted up the pressure on him to step down.

They met against the backdrop of a surge in government attacks on the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold, and mounting world outrage over violence that has killed thousands of people during the uprising.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Assad -- and his backers inside Syria and abroad -- that they will be held to account for the crackdown on opponents and what she described as a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.

Addressing her comments to Russia and China, which vetoed tough action on Syria in the United Nations, she said: "They are setting themselves not only against the Syrian people but also the entire Arab awakening."

"It's quite distressing to see permanent members of the Security Council using their veto when people are being murdered - women, children, brave young men -- houses are being destroyed. It is just despicable," she added.

"I am convinced Assad's days are numbered, but I regret that there will be more killing before he goes," she said.

Diplomatic moves though are hamstrung by the fact that, so far at least, there is little appetite for military intervention in Syria and attempts to ease Assad out via the United Nations Security Council have been stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes.

Beijing and Moscow declined invitations to attend the meeting in Tunisia.

In a tacit acknowledgement that the scope for pressuring Assad through diplomacy is limited, some of the delegates at the conference -- especially Gulf states long opposed to Assad -- pressed for an international peacekeeping force in Syria and favored arming the Syrian rebels.

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, appeared to be taking matters into its own hands, saying it was supplying weapons to rebels inside Syria while Western and other states turned a blind eye.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal led the hawkish camp, saying that arming the Syrian rebels would be "an excellent idea."

Another hawk, Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani told the Tunis meeting an Arab force should be created to open and protect humanitarian corridors between opposition strongholds and Syria's neighbors.

Several representatives from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group, said the conflict was increasingly entering a military dimension.

"We would have hoped that we could bring down the regime through completely peaceful means but the regime practiced violence and only understands the language of force," said SNC official Bassam Ishaak at the Tunis meeting. V "They came to power by force and they will only leave by force," he said.

Nevertheless, there was no mention in the "Friends of Syria" final communiqué of any plans for intervention, or arming the Syrian rebels.

Many Arab states which traditionally have had friendly ties with the Assad administration feel that further militarizing the crisis would tip Syria into a dangerous sectarian quagmire that could destabilize the whole region.

The Tunis meeting, in its final declaration, called on Assad to immediately cease all violence and allow access for humanitarian supplies. By late on Friday, the Red Cross said it had been able to reach Homs and was evacuating some of the wounded and sick women and children.

The "Friends of Syria" also committed to ratchet up sanctions on Syria. These would include travel bans on senior Syrian officials, freezing their assets, boycotting Syrian oil, suspending investments and preventing arms supplies to the government.

A diplomat attending the conference said the aim was to send a message to those who were wavering, especially the Syrian business community, that Assad was a lost cause.

"The point is to make the transition look more inevitable," said the diplomat.

The session in Tunis saw moves towards greater engagement with the often-fractious Syrian opposition.

Foreign governments see a coherent opposition movement that can represent all of Syria's different ethnic and religious groups - in essence, a government-in-waiting - as a vital precursor to pushing out Assad.

The communiqué identified the Syrian National Council as "a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful change." The meeting's chair, Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, said the group's next meeting in Turkey would grant a fuller endorsement.

"We have gone half the way and we will probably do the other half in Turkey," he said.

Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be at the forefront of any international effort to achieve urgent, comprehensive and effective solutions to protect the Syrian people and the Kingdom cannot participate in any work that does not solve the crisis quickly and effectively.

In his speech to the participants in the International Conference for Friends of Syria held this week in Tunis, Prince Saud asserted what is happening in Syria is a serious tragedy which cannot be tolerated. He added that the Syrian regime lost its legitimacy and became more like the occupation authority.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia holds morally responsible the international parties that disrupt the international move for the way things turned out, especially if these parties continue in their failing and blind stances on the interests of the Syrian people,” Saud Al-Faisal said.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia subscribes to the draft statement which focuses on the humanitarian situations in the affected areas,” he added.

Prince Saud expressed thanks to the Tunisian government for organizing this conference.

Syria lashed out at Saudi Arabia on Saturday, a day after the kingdom's foreign minister backed the idea of arming the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime, accusing Riyadh of becoming "a partner" in the bloodshed in Syria.

The sharp riposte from Damascus, which was published in a state-run newspaper, came as activists said at least 77 people were killed across the country and regime forces pounded rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had failed Saturday to gain access to the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs for a second day to evacuate more wounded civilians, including at least two foreign journalists who were wounded in government shelling on Wednesday.

The humanitarian team and its Syrian chapter evacuated 27 people from the area on Friday. But ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said negotiations to get access to the neighborhood Saturday "yielded no concrete results."

He said the ICRC would keep trying and that the Syrian Red Crescent carried out evacuations elsewhere in Syria, including in other neighborhoods of Homs.

Along with wounded Syrians, two foreign journalists injured in the rocket attack remain in the neighborhood. They are French journalist Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and British photographer Paul Conroy of the Sunday Times.

The bodies of American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, who were killed in the same attack, are also still in the area.

The Syrian uprising began in March with mostly peaceful protests in a number of the country's impoverished provinces.

As security forces violently suppressed them, killing thousands, the protest grew and escalated into an increasingly armed insurrection.

The UN said last month that 5,400 people had been killed in the Syrian revolt in 2011. Hundreds more have died since.

Activists put the number at more than 7,300, but overall figures are impossible to confirm independently.

The crackdown against the mostly Sunni opposition has drawn international condemnation and pressure from other countries in the region as it has taken on increasingly sectarian tones.

The Sunni power in the region, Saudi Arabia has been a harshly critical of the Assad regime, which is controlled by the minority Alawite sect, which has Shiite power Iran as its main patron, and relations between the two countries have been plunged into deep freeze.

A Saturday commentary in the state-run Al Thawra daily sharply criticized Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who said during Friday's 60-nation gathering in Tunisia that he supported giving weapons and ammunition to groups fighting the Syrian regime.

"I think it's an excellent idea," Prince Saud told reporters in Tunisia. Asked why, he replied: "Because they have to defend themselves."

Al Thawra said that the prince, by "rudely" supporting an armed opposition, has become a "direct partner in shedding more Syrian blood."

"It's shameful for the vocabulary of the Saudi speech to reach this level … and to announce so rudely support for terrorists," Al Thawra said. The paper reflects the Syrian government's point of view.

In August, Saudi King Abdullah issued a harsh statement against Assad's crackdown and recalled the kingdom's ambassador to Damascus in protest. Since then, the ambassador has not returned and Saudi officials have been campaigning against Assad's regime worldwide.

The Syrian regime has accused the opposition of being terrorists acting out a foreign plot.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 89 were killed in shooting, clashes and shelling by government troops throughout the country Saturday, 19 of them in the city of Homs, which has emerged as the heart of the revolt and suffered from a four-week offensive.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 77 people were killed, 32 of them in Homs province.

The figures could not be independently confirmed.

The LCC also said that citizen journalist Anas al-Tarshi, better known as Anas al-Homsi, died Friday during government shelling of the Homs neighborhood of Qarabees.

Al-Tarshi, who used to film and upload videos on activist websites was killed while trying to evacuate wounded people from the neighborhood, the LCC said.

In Istanbul, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Saturday that Syria was seeking to crush its opposition and then proceed with reforms.

"That kind of logic unfortunately renders any kind of reform meaningless," he said. "To fight on the one hand with your people and then to claim that there is reform is contradictory."

He criticized the Syrian government's assault on Homs just before holding a referendum.

Assad has announced a Sunday referendum on a new constitution. The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Assad's Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup. But leaders of the uprising have dismissed the vote as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to break the regime's hold on power.

Davutoglu spoke at a joint news conference with U.N. General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, who called for increased pressure on Syria to stop its crackdown. Al-Nasser described the meeting on Syria in Tunis as a "starting point" at which "certain ideas were put on the table.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a conference in Tunisia on Friday that President Bashar Al Assad will "pay a heavy price" for ignoring international will.

Clinton said the Syrian regime will have "more blood on its hands" if it doesn't immediately comply with ceasefire demands being issued by a group of 70 western and Arab nations. She was speaking at the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunis.

The Saudi Arabian delegation walked out of the meeting over what it saw as the gathering's "inactivity", Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television said.

It said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal left the meeting after saying in a speech that focusing on humanitarian aid to Syria was "not enough".

In her opening remarks, Clinton said the Al Assad regime has "ignored every warning, squandered every opportunity and broken every agreement."

The Friends of Syria are demanding an immediate ceasefire so humanitarian aid can be delivered to Syrians who have suffered under a yearlong assault, especially those in the city of Homs, which has been under bombardment for past three weeks.

"If the Assad regime refuses to allow this life-saving aid to reach civilians, it will have ever-more blood on its hands," Clinton said, noting the same was true of nations like Russia and China, which are backing Assad.

As she also announced $10 million (Dh36.7 million) in aid for humanitarian efforts, Clinton said the meeting should send a "clear message" to Al Assad: "You will pay a heavy price for ignoring the will of the international community and violating the human rights of your people."

Qatari Foreign Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani backed calls for an Arab peacekeeping force in Syria.

"We want this meeting to be a start to stopping the violence in Syria and this cannot be done except after the formation of an international Arab force to maintain security, the opening of secure humanitarian corridors to bring aid to the Syrian people and the application of Arab League decisions," he told the meeting.

In Geneva, new international mediator Kofi Annan urged all sides in the Syria crisis to cooperate with his mission, saying he was determined to put an end to the violence and human rights abuses.