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Gulf states call for Arab League meeting on Syria in a bid to quell violence

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Gulf Arab states on Thursday called for an immediate meeting of Arab League states to discuss the “dire” situation in Syria, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) said in a statement, as Syrian troops and armed dissidents clashed in three towns, with at least 19 people killed.

They said the meeting be should held at foreign ministers’ level and discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, and study ways “to stop the bloodshed and machine of violence,” they said.

The GCC is a loose political and economic alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

Britain’s Foreign Office has again summoned the Syrian ambassador to London over the alleged intimidation of exiled activists, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday.

It is the third time this year that Syrian ambassador Sami Khiyami has been summoned by the British government amid unrest in the Arab nation, while it also rescinded his invitation to Prince William’s wedding in April.

“The Syrian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office this morning and told that any harassment or intimidation of Syrians in our country is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Hague told parliament, according to AFP.

He urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside now and allow others to take forward reform,” adding that in contrast to Libya “appalling violence and repression continues in Syria.”

The Syrian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office this morning and told that any harassment or intimidation of Syrians in our country is unacceptable and will not be tolerated

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

Harassment and intimidation

Hague said the warning came a day after junior Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt had met members of the opposition Syrian National Council in Paris, while Hague himself met Syrian activists in London at the end of September.

The Foreign Office first summoned Khiyami in May to protest at the crackdown against protesters by Assad's regime.

In June he was summoned again about media reports that a diplomat at the embassy had been intimidating Syrians in Britain, and that members of their families in Syria had been threatened.

In April Britain abruptly withdrew Khiyami’s invitation to the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, following pressure from rights groups and the media.

Speaking after the Syrian ambassador attended the Foreign Office on Thursday, Burt said he was “deeply concerned by continued reports suggesting harassment and intimidation by Syrian diplomats in the UK.”

“In summoning the Syrian ambassador today the UK made very clear that any such behavior will not be tolerated and must immediately stop,” he said.

“We will take appropriate action on evidence that such action is happening and continue to encourage anyone who has experienced harassment or intimidation to report this to the police.”

“They continue to investigate allegations and we are working with them closely,” he added.

Clashes with Syrian troops

Syrian troops and armed dissidents, meanwhile, clashed in three towns on Thursday, with at least 19 people killed, as the EU announced sanctions on a key Syrian bank in protest at its deadly crackdown on dissent.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 19 people were killed in Homs, Deraa and Idlib.

“The Syrian army backed by tanks and armored troop carriers launched an assault this morning on the town of Banash and clashes took place with armed men who were apparently dissidents,” the rights group said.

It said that the army also launched an attack on Taum village, to the east.

“Several houses were partly destroyed and people were wounded... while the noise of heavy machineguns and explosions could be heard in several parts of the town and ambulances seen racing through the streets,” it said.

In the southern province of Deraa, armed men -- also apparent defectors -- killed nine soldiers, one of them an officer, the Observatory said.

It said 25 civilians were arrested, including 12 members of one family.

In Brussels, the European Union decided to freeze the assets of the Commercial Bank of Syria, in a new set of sanctions over the regime's brutal crackdown on protesters, diplomats said.

“Today’s decision is a direct consequence of the appalling and brutal campaign the Syrian regime is waging against its own people,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, according to AFP.

“Our measures are not aimed at the Syrian people, but aim to deprive the regime of financial revenues and the support base necessary to maintain the repression,” she said, without naming the bank.

Rights groups meanwhile reported further raids on Thursday against anti-Assad protestors.

Raiding Homs

The Local Coordination Committees, which act as umbrella groups for protesters seeking to bring down the president, said soldiers and security forces also carried out a raid on Homs in central Syria.

Heavy gunfire could be heard.

Security forces have set up checkpoints and made more than 50 arrests during raids in Qusayr, near the city of Homs, the Observatory said.

On Wednesday, thousands of Syrians who back the president rallied in the centre of Damascus to show support for the regime which has faced seven months of anti-Assad protests.

In apparent response to the loyalist rally, anti-regime protests erupted in Idlib, in the port of Latakia, Homs, Deir al-Zor in the east, Deraa and near Damascus, the Observatory said.

On Wednesday, a court in the capital freed on bail prominent dissident Walid al-Bunni, who was arrested in August, his lawyer Michel Shammas said.

“The Damascus court of appeals on Wednesday freed opposition figure Walid al-Bunni in exchange for a bail of 1,150 Syrian pounds ($23). He will be tried later for inciting (anti-regime) demonstrations and sectarianism,” he said.

Bunni was detained on Aug. 6 along with his two sons, who were released shortly afterwards.

According to the United Nations, the regime’s crackdown on protests that began in mid-March has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,900 people.

Syrian authorities blame gangs of armed terrorists for the bloodshed.