The Arab League suspended Syria and called on its army to stop killing civilians in a surprise move on Saturday that turned up the heat on President Bashar Assad.

The League will impose economic and political sanctions on Syria's government and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors, said Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani. It will also call a meeting of Syrian opposition parties, he said.

"We were criticized for taking a long time but this was out of our concern for Syria," Sheikh Hamad told reporters at the League's headquarters in Cairo. "We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions."

Syria's representative at the Arab League said the decision was "not worth the ink it was written with".

U.S. President Barack Obama praised the Arab League's decision.

"After the Assad regime flagrantly failed to keep its commitments, the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable," Obama said in a statement. "These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests."

"The United States joins with the Arab League in its support for the Syrian people, who continue to demand their universal rights in the face of the regime’s callous violence. We will continue to work with our friends and allies to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people as they pursue the dignity and transition to democracy that they deserve."

Hopes among Western powers that Assad would be isolated by his Arab neighbors were repeatedly dashed until now. Some Arab leaders have been reluctant to turn against one of their peers given their own restive populations, Middle East diplomats say.

But Assad has pressed ahead with the crackdown on protesters against his rule despite an Arab peace plan brokered on Nov. 2. The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed in seven months of violence.

Activists said at least six people were killed in Syria on Saturday.

"We are calling all Syrian opposition parties to a meeting at the Arab League headquarters to agree a unified vision for the transitional period," said Sheikh Hamad, who is also Qatar's foreign minister.

He said the suspension of Syria from the regional body would take effect on Nov. 16, but did not detail the sanctions.

Qatar chairs the Arab League.

"We ask the Arab Syrian Army to not be involved in the violent actions and killing of civilians," Sheikh Hamad said, quoting from an Arab League statement.

Syria's Arab League representative, Youssef Ahmed, said suspending Damascus violated the League's charter because it could only be done by consensus at a summit of Arab leaders.

It was clear that "orders were issued to them from the United States and Europe to hasten a decision against Syria," Ahmed told Syrian state TV.

Syrian TV reported a demonstration outside the Qatar embassy in Damascus, while Assad's opponents hailed the League's new resolve.

"This gives a lot of strength to the position of the Syrian National Council. This is now an Arab position," said Basma Qadmani, a member of the executive committee of the Syrian
National Council, the most prominent opposition group.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the League's decision sent an important signal to those in the UN Security Council who had up to now prevented a clear resolution on Syria.

"We will urge this to be seen as a chance for a change of heart," he said.

Echoes of Libya

Freezing Syria out of the 22-member League of Arab States carries extra symbolism in the wake of events in Libya, where Muammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed in a rebellion that
benefited from NATO air support.

The NATO mission got UN Security Council approval after Libya was suspended by the Arab League.

"This step introduces a possibility of foreign intervention and opens the door for engaging the international community in the case," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the
Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Sheikh Hamad held out the possibility that the League may ask the United Nations to help protect the rights of Syrians.

"If the violence and killing doesn't stop, the Secretary General will call on international organizations dealing with human rights, including the United Nations," he said.

Since the Arab peace deal, Syrian security forces have killed more than 100 people in Homs, Human Rights Watch said on Friday, and indignation at perceived dithering by Syria's neighbors has grown.

As Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo, about 100 protesters shouted "Bashar goes out, Syria is free" and waved banners reading: "The people want international protection".

"We hope today's decisions will end the violence immediately and no more men, women or children will die in Syria," said Ibrahim Alshatay, 35, a Syrian protester.

More killings

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one person was killed and three wounded on Saturday when the army opened fire in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb.

Two others were killed in the city of Homs, including a taxi driver killed by sniper fire, the British-based group said, and the body of an activist was found in the southern town of Jassim after it was raided by security forces.

Two people were killed in an attack on a bus heading from Homs to Aleppo, where many army conscripts have deserted, the Observatory said. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committee, put Saturday's death toll at 12.

The Arab League has appeared wrong-footed by rebellions that have unseated veteran strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Its about-turn on Syria follows months of wrangling and low-key shuttle diplomacy.

The League was split between states such as Saudi Arabia, that are hostile to Syria's ally Iran, and countries such as Yemen, struggling to quell widespread unrest, and Lebanon, where Syria's influence looms large.

Yemen and Lebanon opposed the suspension and Iraq abstained in the vote, Sheikh Hamad said.

Sources familiar with the League's deliberations said countries like Somalia and Mauritania had taken a cue from Sudan and backed the tougher stance on Syria, while Algeria was persuaded to switch camps under pressure from France.

"Algeria took the same position, which was challenging for the Arab League to achieve because of the uprising Algeria had earlier in the year and its location close to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt," said a source at the League.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: הליגה הערבית השעתה את סוריה