Syria attacks Saudi over arming opposition calls

BASSEM MROUE Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- 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 killings taking place in Syria.

The sharp riposte from Damascus, which was published in a state-run newspaper, came as activists said regime forces were pounding rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, where the International Committee of the Red Cross said negotiations have resumed to evacuate wounded civilians as well as two Western journalists who were wounded in government shelling earlier this week.

Syria's traditionally cold relations with Saudi have worsened sharply since the 11-month-old uprising against Assad began. The Sunni power in the region, Saudi Arabia has been a harsh critic of the Assad regime, which is controlled by the minority Alawite sect, and its brutal crackdown against the mostly Sunni opposition.

Also Saturday, government bombardment killed at least nine people in Homs where a government attacked entered its fourth week. An International Committee of the Red Cross team evacuated 27 people Friday from Homs' besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr but has so far failed to get out two wounded Western journalists and the bodies of two other reporters killed by government rockets.

ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Saturday that the group and Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society have resumed negotiations with the government and opposition to continue evacuating all persons in need of help in Baba Amr.

"Until last night, seven wounded persons were evacuated from Baba Amr, as well as 20 women and children," he said.

Syria's Foreign Ministry accused gunmen of blocking the evacuation of the wounded journalists. Activists, however, said that French journalist Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and British photographer Paul Conroy of the Sunday Times refused to leave Baba Amr with the Syrian Red Crescent Society and demanded that they be taken out by the ICRC.

The bodies of two journalists -- an American and a Frenchmen who were killed by government shelling Wednesday -- are still in Baba Amr.

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 U.N. said last month that 5,400 people had been killed. Hundreds more have died since. Activists put the number at more than 7,300, but overall figures are impossible to confirm independently.

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 28 people were killed in shooting, clashes and government troops shelling throughout the country Saturday. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 36 people were killed 17 of them in Homs province.

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

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Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia contributed to this report from Istanbul.

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Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue