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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 4:59 AM

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Syria's Assad appeals to African summit for help

Syria's increasingly isolated president sent a letter calling for help from leaders of five nations at an economic meeting Wednesday in South Africa to help end his country's civil war.

Associated Press

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DAMASCUS, Syria —

Syria's increasingly isolated president sent a letter calling for help from leaders of five nations at an economic meeting Wednesday in South Africa to help end his country's civil war.

Bashar Assad's appeal to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa came a day after the Arab League endorsed Syria's Western-backed opposition coalition, allowing it to take the country's seat at a summit in Doha, Qatar. The move drew strong condemnation from Damascus, which warned it will take "appropriate measures" to defend its sovereignty.

Attempts to end Syria's 2-year-old conflict through peaceful means have failed to make progress. The opposition, including the main Syrian National Coalition, says it will accept nothing less than Assad's departure from power while Assad's government has vowed to continue the battle until the rebel forces - which it refers to as terrorists - are crushed.

"This requires a clear international will to dry up the sources of terrorism and stop its funding and arming," Assad said in the letter, which was carried by Syrian state media on Wednesday. It was addressed to the leaders at the BRICS forum, which was started in 2009 amid the economic meltdown to chart a new and more equitable world economic order.

Assad said Syria is subjected to "acts of terrorism backed by Arab, regional and Western nations" and asked the leaders to "work for an immediate cessation of violence that would guarantee the success of the political solution."

The opposition's ascension to the Arab League further demonstrated the extent of the regime's isolation two years into a civil war that the U.N. says has killed an estimated 70,000 people.

In a further show of solidarity with anti-Assad forces, the summit in Qatar endorsed the "right of each state" to provide the Syrian people and the rebel Free Syrian Army with "all necessary means to ... defend themselves, including military means."

Following up on the endorsement, the Syrian National Coalition opened what it called its first embassy, raising its green, white and black rebel flag at different site from the now-closed Syrian Embassy in the Qatari capital.

Key opposition figures looked on, including Ghassan Hitto, George Sabra and leader Mouaz al-Khatib, who recently said he was stepping down from his post and criticized the international community for not doing enough to back the anti-Assad forces. Al-Khatib said the SNC will not discuss his resignation, leaving open the option that he could be asked to reverse his decision.

Envoys from the U.S., Turkey, France and other nations that have backed the rebels also attended the ceremony. The new embassy operations are mostly symbolic, but can serve as a base for political initiatives. Many nations in the West, Arab world and elsewhere have declared the SNC the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and have effectively broken diplomatic ties with Assad's government.

Al-Khatib criticized a decision by NATO not to use U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries based in Turkey to help protect parts of northern Syria from attacks by Assad's military.

But the opposition alliance is marred by severe divisions among its ranks, and often disconnected from the rebel forces fighting inside Syria, so it's not immediately clear how the developments in Qatar would translate on the ground.

The Syrian government said the Arab League's decisions in favor of the opposition "violate in a flagrant way its charter." A statement carried by state-run TV said the Doha summit "encouraged violence, radicalism and extremism that form a danger not only to Syria but for the whole Arab nation and the world."

It said Damascus rejected the Arab summit's decisions and reserved its right "to take appropriate measures to defend its sovereignty and interests of its people." The statement added that Syria will continue the work to "guarantee security and stability and to protect the nation by fighting terrorism and terrorists."

BRICS countries, including Assad's key ally Russia, oppose foreign intervention in Syria and accuse the West of trying to force regime change. Russia, China and South Africa have also voted against U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria.

At the gathering in the South African coastal resort of Durban, President Jacob Zuma and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, were asked Tuesday whether they would use their influence to persuade Assad to allow unimpeded U.N. humanitarian access across all of Syria's borders, as requested by leading activists from BRICS countries.

Zuma did not answer, while Putin said only that "We will think about it." Earlier, the Russian president said the forum's leaders would jointly "work for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis."

In his letter, Assad criticized European and U.S. sanctions imposed on his regime and urged leaders of the five countries to "exert every possible effort to lift the suffering of the Syrian people that were caused by the sanctions," an apparent reference to shortages of goods and soaring prices.

Syrian activist groups, meanwhile, reported violence in different areas in the country on Wednesday, including Damascus and its suburbs and the southern Quneitra region along the cease-fire line separating Syria from Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees reported clashes and shelling in the Quneitra villages of Bir Ajam, Rasm al-Hawa and Ein el-Darb. The Observatory said rebels overran three army posts near Bir Ajam on Wednesday.

The area near the Golan Heights, a strategic goal of the rebels, has been the scene of heavy clashes for days.

In Israel, the military said it has provided medical care to seven wounded Syrians who arrived at the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights - the third time Israel has assisted Syrians hurt in the fighting. The two countries are bitter enemies.

The Israeli army said medics treated five Syrians at the border before releasing them back to Syria. It said two other Syrians who were severely wounded were transferred to Israeli hospitals for further treatment.

The army said it will return the wounded Syrians when their hospital treatment ends. Israel did not reveal the identities of the wounded because having been in Israel could endanger them when back in Syria.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Brian Murphy in Doha, Qatar and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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