'Friends Of Syria' Group Calls For Ceasefire

Representatives from some 70 countries met in Tunis on Friday and issued an ultimatum to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, demanding an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian access to cities like Homs that have been under bombardment by the Syrian army. Audie Cornish talks to Michele Kelemen about the news.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As people were being evacuated from Homs, envoys from dozens of countries gathered in Tunisia. They demanded the Syrian president silence his guns and allow humanitarian aid into the country. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there in Tunis, and she says Bashar al-Assad can still choose to end the violence.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: But if he continues to reject that choice, we and the Syrian people will keep pressure on him until his deadly regime cracks and collapses because it will. I'm absolutely confident of that.

CORNISH: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now from Tunisia to talk about the options being discussed. But first, Michele, as we just heard, the Red Cross has gotten some access to the city of Homs now. Is that a good sign?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, some activists I spoke with here said the sign of success of this conference is only once you get ambulances into these besieged cities. So if this is the start of something like that, then that's a very good sign. It's obviously still too early to tell.

CORNISH: Now, onto what the international community is trying to do, essentially they've issued an ultimatum. But what steps will they take if the violence continues?

KELEMEN: Well, that's one of the questions I've had. You know, they have this clear statement but not a do-this-or-else. The or-else part seems mainly more of the same - more pressure, more sanctions on Assad and those around him. The Saudi foreign minister told reporters here that he thinks arming the opposition is an excellent idea that was - those were his words. But U.S. officials say this was a conference that wasn't about that. It was about getting much needed humanitarian aid to these cities under siege.

Now, there's been lots of talk about humanitarian corridors or safe passages for civilians. And one Syrian opposition official told me here that while on the table we're talking about humanitarian aid, under the table he thinks there needs to be some way to smuggle weapons and money to the armed opposition in Syria that they can set up these humanitarian corridors themselves.

CORNISH: Now, the Syrian National Council - that's the exiled opposition group - also addressed the conference today. Is that group actually gaining more legitimacy?

KELEMEN: The U.S. and the others here described this Syrian National Council, the SNC, as a legitimate voice of the Syrians. Diplomats say this was important for them to spell out their vision of a new Syria without Assad to show people in the country that there is an alternative. It's not just Assad or chaos. And, you know, a lot of this whole day here has been about sending signals.

CORNISH: And, Michele, the United Nations and the Arab League have tabbed the former U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to try to resolve this crisis. What will he do?

KELEMEN: He's working on the political track to try to persuade Assad to step aside. You know, the Arab League had put out this proposal for a political transition, and so the U.N. is going to be trying to push that. The U.N. is also going to oversee the humanitarian efforts. That's going to be somebody else, but that's the humanitarian coordinator doing that. And the U.N. is starting contingency planning for a peacekeeping force. It would be one that would go in once the environment allows it.

CORNISH: Michele, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

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