Representatives of more than 70 nations have gathered for a “Friends of Syria” conference in the Tunisian capital aimed at finding ways to end bloodshed in Syria’s increasingly violent uprising.
At the meeting in Tunis on Friday, Saudi Arabia and Qatar pushed for more forceful intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, saying he supported the arming of opposition fighters.
Faisal said Syrians have the right to defend themselves against Assad’s crackdown that has left thousands dead.
Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, said an Arab force should be created to impose peace and open humanitarian corridors 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.
“The current situation demands an Arab intervention in the framework of the [Arab] League, an Arab force to keep peace and security, to accompany diplomatic efforts to convince Bashar to leave,” he said.
Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president, backed calls for an Arab peacekeeping forces but also said that Assad and his family should be granted immunity from prosecution.
“A political solution must be found, such as granting the Syrian president, his family and members of his regime judicial immunity and a place to seek refuge, which Russia could offer,” he said.
A declaration by the group is expected later on Friday evening.
Before the conference, the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) outlined its vision for a post- Assad era, proposing an interim presidential council of national leaders and a truth and reconciliation committee.
In a copy of his speech, Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC leader, called for the continuation of the uprising until Assad was removed or has handed over power as per an Arab League plan.
Earlier, the UN and the Arab League appointed Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, to act as a joint special envoy on Syria.
The native of Ghana, who along with the UN was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2001, has a track record as a mediator, having negotiated a power-sharing deal in Kenya to defuse post-election tensions in 2008.
Turkey called on the Damascus to cooperate with Annan, describing him as a “wise man with great experience”.
“All sides, particularly the Syrian administration, should cooperate with Annan’s goodwill mission for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria to be carried out effectively,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russia welcomed his appointment and called for an immediate ceasefire to evacuate wounded from the city of Homs.
“We hope that the work of this respected statesman will assist in solving the acute political and humanitarian problems in Syria,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The Russian side will be ready for close cooperation with him in the search for mutually acceptable paths to solutions for these tasks,” it said.
Expressing serious concern about the humanitarian situation, it said Annan should work with both sides in the conflict and search for a peaceful solution through dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.
“Moscow is seriously concerned about the continuing clashes between government troops and armed groups in a number of populated areas in Syria, above all in the city of Homs,” the Russian foreign ministry said.
Both Russia and China refused to attend the conference in Tunis, saying they refused international intervention in Syria.
The latest diplomatic developments came against the backdrop of country-wide protests in Syria and reports of continued violence in several cities.
The anti-government protests were in support of the besieged Homs’ neighbourhood of Bab Amr, which has been under a fierce attack by government forces for nearly three weeks.
Activists reported the deaths of at least 50 of people on Friday as footage of street protests emerged from Homs, Qamishili, Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and the suburbs of Damascus.
The Local Co-ordination Committees activist network said most of the deaths occurred in the central city of Hama.
Activists said the bombardment was continuing in Bab Amr, the neighbourhood where two foreign journalists were killed and two others injured on Wednesday.
A Western diplomat told the AFP news agency on Friday that the British and Polish embassies in Damascus were scrambling to evacuate the wounded journalists and the bodies of those killed.
Veteran US journalist Marie Colvin, working for Britain’s The Sunday Times, and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, with the IP3 Press agency, were killed when a rocket hit a makeshift media centre in Baba Amr.
Edith Bouvier, a reporter for French daily Le Figaro, and Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy were wounded in the same attack.