BEIRUT — The head of the Arab League met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday to discuss ways of ending the bloodshed in the country, even as activists reported at least five people killed in the government’s crackdown on a six-month-old uprising.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby was originally expected to visit Damascus on Wednesday, but the visit was delayed at Syria’s request in what appeared to be a sign of the country’s growing alarm over any outside criticism.
“I heard from him an understanding of the situation, and he showed me a series of measures taken by the Syrian government that focused on national dialogue,” Elaraby said in a statement after the meeting.
He described the talk with Assad as a “frank conversation” but offered few details.
Also Saturday, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed at least five people in the restive central city of Homs, a western city of 1.3 million that has been under siege for the past week.
The revolt in Syria began six months ago with modest calls for reform, but as the crackdown continues — and the death toll tops 2,200 — the protesters are calling for the downfall of the regime.
In a marked shift, the protesters also have started calling for outside help — although not necessarily military action like the NATO intervention that helped topple the government of Libya.
Instead, they are largely calling for observation missions and human rights monitors who could help deter attacks on civilians.
“We want international protection!” protesters shouted Friday in cities across the country, taking to the streets as they do every Friday after the main Muslim prayer service of the week, despite the near-certainty that government forces will respond with deadly force.
“We really want the international community to interfere in this to stop the crimes against us,” an activist in Homs said. “They are massacring us; they are eliminating us.”
Eleven protesters were killed Friday, most of them in Homs, according to activist networks that track the daily toll. Residents have described snipers on the tops of tall buildings and armored vehicles roaming the streets.
Widespread international condemnation and sanctions have done little to stop Assad’s crackdown.
The Assad government has all but sealed off the country to foreigners, saying the unrest is being driven by terrorists and thugs who want to destroy Syria.