Arab ministers stepped up diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria on Sunday and Saudi Arabia advocated giving all forms of support to opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
At a Arab League meeting in Cairo, Tunisia said it would host the first meeting on February 24 of a Friends of Syria contact group made up of Arab and other states and backed by the West.
Ministers also proposed sending a joint Arab-U.N. monitoring team to Syria, replacing an Arab mission beset by problems since it began work in December.
How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people? Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal asked ministers at the start of the League session.
At our meeting today I call for decisive measures, after the failure of the half-solutions, he said. The Arab League should...open all channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and give all forms of support to it.
He did not specify if that support should include military aid. Western powers have shunned military action, despite widespread condemnation of the repression of the uprising, in which thousands have been killed since it erupted last March.
In the besieged Syrian town of Homs, sporadic rocket and gunfire broke a respite in government bombardments of opposition held neighbourhoods, killing at least four people, according to the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Crowds attended the funerals of some of the 28 people killed in bombings of two military sites in the northern city of Aleppo on Friday - attacks the government cited as proof of its contention that it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.
International efforts to resolve the crisis, among the bloodiest of Arab revolts that overthrew leaders in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia last year, reached an impasse on February 4 when Russia and China blocked a Western-backed Arab peace plan at the U.N. Security Council that called for Assad to step down.
CHIEF OBSERVER QUITS
Sunday's meeting in Cairo opened with the resignation of the Sudanese general who led an Arab League peace mission to Syria in December, Mohammed al-Dabi. He had been a controversial figure because of his country's own poor human rights record.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said he was proposing a new joint Arab-U.N. monitoring team to Syria. Elaraby told Reuters last week that any new mission would have to be bigger and better equipped and with a different mandate.
The idea of a joint Arab-U.N. mission has won only a tepid response from U.N. diplomats.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Ben Adessalam told ministers that his country would host a meeting of Friends of Syria, a plan proposed by France and the United States after Russia and China blocked the Security Council resolution.
The Syrian people deserve freedom as much as their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab states that witnessed major political change, he said.
Ministers from Gulf Arab states, which have been leading the drive to isolate Assad and end the crackdown on the protests against his 11-year rule, met separately earlier.
A source who attended the Gulf meeting said ministers had discussed recognising the opposition Syrian National Council and would propose that Arab states each take such a step.
HOMS UNDER FIRE AGAIN
In Homs, shelling had eased during Saturday night and Sunday morning before Assad's forces renewed their rocket barrages. At least four people were killed, activists said.
Activist reports are hard to verify independently but form the basis for reporting the conflict as the Syrian government has restricted Western media access to much of the country.
At least 300 people are said to have been killed in the past week in mostly Sunni Muslim opposition areas, food and medicine are running short, and people had been trapped indoors for days by relentless artillery and sniper fire, residents said.
The Assad family, from the Alawite minority, have ruled Syria for the past 42 years. Bashar al-Assad took over after his father Hafez died 11 years ago but hopes that he would prove to be a reformer have been dashed by the events of the past year.
World powers are divided over how to end the conflict which threatens to blow open the complex ethnic, religious and political faultlines across the Middle East.
Diplomats at the United Nations say Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power irked by Assad's alliance with its Shi'ite regional rival Iran, has floated a similar draft to the one vetoed last week by Russia and China for the U.N. General Assembly, where resolutions are non-binding but cannot be vetoed.
But a Saudi foreign ministry official denied on Sunday that Riyadh had formally submitted any such measure.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Saturday that Moscow would not back any unbalanced text in the assembly similar to the one it blocked in the Security Council.
AL QAEDA SPEAKS
Meanwhile Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged Syrians not to rely on the West or Arab governments in their uprising.
You know better what they are planning against you. Our people in Syria, don't depend on the Arab League and its corrupt governments supporting it, Zachariah said in a video recording posted on the Internet.
He described Assad as a butcher and urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to come to the aid of the rebels.
In Syria's northern town of Aleppo, mourners gathered for the funerals of 28 soldiers and civilians killed in bomb attacks on two military and security facilities on Friday.
No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts. The government has blamed previous such attacks in Damascus on al Qaeda.
Speaking at the funerals, Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun, mufti of Syria, appealed to the opposition to end its campaign.
Enough. Enough. Enough. Why, brothers in the opposition, do you want to burn down your country? Why do you want to shed blood? he said.
He also urged Assad to stamp out corruption, saying this way it will not remain a pretext for those who want to destroy this nation.
Syrian state television reported that Assad, who says he is introducing reforms to meet the opposition demands, received a new draft constitution on Sunday.
When the constitution is recognised Syria will have taken the most important step toward a legal and constitutional framework for transitioning the country to a new era...that will achieve what we all aspire to, Hassoun was quoted as saying.
(Additional reporting by Ayman Samir and Edmund Blair in Cairo and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon)