Arab ministers called on Sunday for swift Arab and international action to end bloodshed in Syria after Russia and China blocked a Western-backed Arab peace plan at the U.N. Security Council.

Arab ministers met in Cairo to revive diplomatic efforts after the Arab initiative that called for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside was stalled by the double veto in New York.

As part of the Arab efforts, 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 Western powers.

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.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said he was proposing a new joint Arab-U.N. monitoring team to Syria, replacing an Arab mission beset by problems since it began work in December. The Sudanese general leading the Arab observers quit on Sunday.

I won't work one more time in the framework of the Arab League, General Mohammed al-Dabi, whose appointment had been criticised because of Sudan's own rights record, told Reuters.

I performed my job with full integrity and transparency but I won't work here again as the situation is skewed, he added.

Ministers from Gulf Arab states, which have been leading the drive to isolate Assad and end his bloody 11-month crackdown on protests against his rule, met separately earlier.

A source who attended the Gulf meeting said the ministers had discussed recognising the opposition Syrian National Council and would propose that Arab states each take such a step.

Gulf states announced last week that they were recalling their ambassadors from Syria and expelling Syria's envoys. Libya and Tunisia, both countries where popular revolts toppled authoritarian rulers last year, have done likewise.


The Gulf ministers also discussed terminating the (Arab observer) mission in its existing form, the source said.

Criticised by Syria's opposition for failing to halt violence, the 165-strong Arab mission suffered from internal dissent, as well as logistics and training problems.

Elaraby told Reuters last week that any new mission to Syria would have to be bigger and better equipped, with a different mandate with international support. The idea of a joint Arab-U.N. mission has won only a tepid response from U.N. diplomats.

The Saudi minister criticised the Security Council's failure to back the Arab plan for Syria but did not name Russia and China. Elaraby said the veto, cause of much Arab frustration, exposed the failings of the Council's voting system.

The Syrian people deserve freedom as much as their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab states that witnessed major political change, Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Ben Adessalam told ministers.

He announced that Tunisia would host the meeting of Friends of Syria, a plan proposed by France and the United States after Russia and China blocked the Security Council resolution.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the new forum would provide a good opportunity to try to create a clear international direction to help the Syrian people to exit the crisis.

The Egyptian news agency said Elaraby had proposed appointing former Jordanian minister and U.N. envoy to Libya, Abdel Elah al-Khatib, as the League's special envoy to Syria.

Diplomats at the United Nations said Saudi Arabia had circulated a new draft resolution backing the Arab plan for the General Assembly, rather than the Security Council, to consider. Assembly resolutions are non-binding but cannot be vetoed.

However, Riyadh denied on Sunday reports that it had formally presented the resolution to the assembly.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Tamim Elyan and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon)