Reporting from Beirut and Cairo — France is seeking international support for a proposal to establish "humanitarian corridors" in Syria to get aid to besieged areas of the country, where the government has turned its guns on protesters and armed insurgents demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
In a radio interview Thursday with France Inter, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he had raised the idea with the United Nations and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and would discuss it with Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo this week.
The Arab League, meanwhile, said it was giving Syria until Friday to sign an agreement to allow Arab monitors into the country or risk punishing sanctions. It was the latest in a series of ultimatums by the 22-member bloc, which is often criticized for being ineffective.
The league has suspended Syria for failing to comply with a peace plan calling for dialogue with the opposition and a withdrawal of government forces from cities and towns. Jordan, Turkey and a number of Western countries have called on Assad to step down.
The diplomatic pressure comes at a time of escalating bloodshed, raising fears that Syria is on the brink of civil war. The opposition Local Coordination Committees said at least 29 people were killed Thursday, all but one of them in the Homs region, where activists reported clashes between government forces and army defectors.
Syria has restricted access for journalists, and opposition accounts could not be independently verified.
The United Nations says at least 3,500 people have been killed in the government crackdown. Assad's government blames the violence on armed "terrorists" and says more than 1,000 security force members have also been killed. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that 12 security force members "targeted by the armed terrorist groups" were buried Thursday.
The proposal to establish humanitarian corridors, which emerged from a meeting Wednesday between Juppe and representatives of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, is likely to alarm Assad, who has repeatedly accused Western nations of pursuing a Libya-style military intervention.
France led efforts to impose a no-fly zone in Libya and took an active role in airstrikes that helped topple the country's longtime leader, Moammar Kadafi. But Juppe said Thursday that military intervention in Syria was not under consideration.
He said one option would be to persuade Syria's government to authorize humanitarian corridors. If Syria refuses, he said, international observers could be deployed. But, he said, "no intervention is possible without an international mandate."
Arab foreign ministers, who are trying to salvage their peace plan, did not immediately respond to the French proposal.
A statement issued by the Arab League said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been informed of the league's ultimatum to Syria, and he was asked to "take the necessary measures under the charter of the United Nations to support the efforts of the Arab League in resolving the situation in Syria." The statement did not elaborate.
If Syria does not sign a protocol by Friday allowing the league's observer mission, the statement said, an economic and social panel would meet Saturday to consider a package of sanctions that could include suspending flights to Syria, halting trade and financial transactions with the government, suspending dealings with the country's central bank and freezing government assets. But the league said it would avoid steps that hurt the Syrian people.
There was no immediate word on whether Syria would comply. The country is already suffering the effects of U.S. and European sanctions on oil exports and a number of state businesses.
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut and Times bureau news assistant Hassan from Cairo.