Syria: Arab League used as a tool by West

Syria on Sunday brushed off the threat of a civil war and looming Arab League sanctions after a deadline for the regime to stop its lethal crackdown on protesters expired with 24 more people killed.

Upping the ante, however, the Arab League called new crisis talks on Syria and said it rejected amendments proposed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime on sending a 500-strong delegation to monitor the violence in the country.

And Turkish President Abdullah Gul said there was "no place for authoritarian regimes" in the Mediterranean region.

But Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem dismissed as "wishful thinking" a warning by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his country risked a descent into civil war.

"When Mrs Clinton says the opposition is well-armed... it is, as they say in English, 'wishful thinking'," Muallem told a news conference.

Clinton had warned on Friday that Syria was at risk of a civil war following a daring attack on an air force intelligence base near Damascus by mutinous troops who call themselves the Free Syria Army.

Muallem also dismissed as "totally unfounded" reports that the offices of the ruling Baath party in Damascus had been hit by several rocket-propelled grenades early on Sunday.

The reports came from rights groups and activists, but an AFP reporter who went to the area found no trace of an attack while local residents denied there had been explosions.

The minister also waved off the significance of Arab League sanctions and slammed some states he accused of "using the Arab League as a tool to reach the (UN) Security Council."

The Arab League said its foreign ministers would hold crisis talks over Syria on Thursday, after it rejected changes proposed by Damascus to its proposal to send an observer mission to the country.

Muallem said he would pursue talks with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi over the observers, but insisted Arab proposals were "unbalanced" and undermined Syria's sovereignty.

"We in Syria do not consider that the deadline is the important issue. The content is the important issue, and to reach an agreement with the Arab League is what counts.

"We will seek every window of opportunity (to work with the Arab League) until the Arabs tell us we don't want you in the Arab League."

Muallem's comments came after Assad, who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for 11 years, vowed to fight and die if necessary, in an interview published in London's Sunday Times.

The minister also confirmed the regime's defiant stance, saying: "If the battle is imposed on us, we will fight it."

At least 24 more people were reported to have been killed at the weekend, adding to the UN figure of the more than 3,500 deaths since mid-March in the Syrian crackdown on protests.

Among the dead were four intelligence agents killed as gunmen raked their car with gunfire and two mutinous soldiers who died in clashes with regular troops in the central town of Shayzar, rights campaigners said.

With rebel troops inflicting mounting losses on the regular army, Turkey and the United States have both raised the spectre of civil war.

But in the interview conducted before the Arab deadline lapsed at midnight (2200 GMT) on Saturday, Assad said he was "definitely" prepared to fight and die for Syria if faced with foreign intervention.

He said he felt sorrow for each drop of Syrian blood spilled but insisted that Damascus must go after armed rebel gangs and enforce law and order.

"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue," Assad said. "I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it."

But international pressure mounted on Syria, with Turkey's president saying "there is no place any more for authoritarian regimes, single party systems that do not have accountability or transparency, on the shores of the Mediterranean."

"As someone who has studied in the United Kingdom, lived in the United Kingdom, has this world view, President Assad should be able to understand this," he told Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, expressed "deep concern for the escalation of violence" in Syria and support for the Arab plan to end it, a joint statement said.

The Arab League said it had rejected Syria's request for changes to a proposal to send observers to Damascus to help implement the peace deal agreed earlier this month.

"It was agreed that the amendments and appendices proposed by the Syrian side affect the core of the document and would radically change the nature of the mission which is to oversee the implementation of the Arab plan to end the crisis in Syria and protect Syrian civilians," a statement said.

The Arab League has already suspended Syria from the 22-member bloc and saw its deadline expire with no compliance from Assad's security forces.

Russia, which has staunchly resisted any attempt to invoke international involvement in the crisis, fearing it could clear the way for a Libya-style military campaign under a UN mandate, meanwhile called for restraint.

Nato on Sunday said action in Syria was not on the table.

"There is no discussion of a Nato role with regard to Syria," James Appathurai, Nato deputy assistant secretary general for political affairs and security policy, told a defence summit in Canada.

"Responsibility to protect doesn't automatically translate into a Nato operation."

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