Syria attacks Saudi over arming opposition calls

DAMASCUS, Syria (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 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 U.N. 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.


Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia from Istanbul and Frank Jordans from Geneva contributed to this report.


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