Saudi urges stern world action against Syria
RIYADH - Saudi Arabia on Tuesday urged "stern" action by the international community against Syria after the regime's decision to hold presidential elections and its alleged use of toxic gas against civilians.
Saudi Arabia is one of the main backers of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has escalated into a civil war increasingly seen as a proxy battle between Riyadh and its regional rival Iran.
"The announcement by the Syrian regime to hold elections is an escalation and undermines Arab and international efforts to peacefully resolve the crisis based on the (outcomes of) the Geneva I conference," said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
The 2012 peace conference called for a transitional government ahead of free and fair elections, with no mention of Assad's role in the transition.
Syrian daily Al-Watan reported Tuesday that parliament speaker Mohamed Jihad Lahham will next week announce the date of the country's presidential election, expected to be held around June despite the ongoing conflict.
The international community, including UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, have criticised Syria's plan to go ahead with the vote, which would likely see the embattled Assad win another seven-year mandate.
This decision, "as well as dangerous information on the regime's recent use of toxic gases against civilians in the town of Kafr Zita," in the central Hama province, represent "clear defiance" of the UN Security Council, Faisal told reporters in Riyadh.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said residents choking from poisoning in the rebel-held town of Kafr Zita were hospitalised after bombing raids on Friday.
Activists in the area took to Facebook to accuse the regime of using chlorine gas, saying it caused "more than 100 cases of suffocation."
Syria's state television claimed that Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate and key force in the armed revolt, had released chlorine in a deadly attack on the town.
Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz said last month that the international community has "betrayed" Syrian rebels by failing to arm them against Assad's Iran-backed regime.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out in March 2011, according to the Observatory.
The uprising began with peaceful mass rallies but escalated into an insurgency when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.