Syria missed an Arab League deadline Friday to allow hundreds of observers into the country, prompting the bloc to consider economic sanctions against Damascus for its eight-month crackdown on dissent, a senior diplomat said.
The Arab League had given Syria 24 hours to agree to the observer mission, a humiliating blow to a nation that was a founding member of the Arab coalition. But the Friday afternoon deadline passed with no word from Damascus, said Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Heli.
Now, the bloc will meet Saturday to decide on sanctions that could include a freeze on financial dealings and assets.
Syria is the scene of the deadliest crackdown against the Arab Spring's eruption of protests, with the U.N. reporting more than 3,500 people killed in eight months. International pressure has been mounting on President Bashar Assad to stop the bloodshed.
Also Friday, a U.N. human rights panel expressed alarm at reports it received of security forces in Syria torturing children.
The Geneva-based Committee against Torture says it has received "numerous, consistent and substantiated reports" of widespread abuse in the country.
Former ally Turkey — now a leading critic of Assad's regime — said allowing the observers would be a "test of goodwill" for Syria.
"Today is a historic decision day for Syria," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a joint news conference with Italy's new Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi Friday in Istanbul. "It must open its doors to observers."
Syria's state-run SANA news agency, however, dismissed the ultimatum, declaring Friday that the Arab League had become a "tool for foreign interference" and that it was serving a Western agenda to stir up trouble in the region.
Violence continued Friday, as activists urged protesters to flood the streets to support army defectors who have sided with the opposition.
Syrian security forces fired outside mosques in Daraa province — apparently to prevent demonstrations by people leaving mosques after Friday afternoon prayers, activists said. Demonstrations were reported in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
Some countries are exploring the possibility of stronger steps to force Assad's hand, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe calling for EU-backed humanitarian corridors to allow aid groups a way in.
Juppe called the situation in Syria "no longer tenable" and accused Assad's regime of "repression of a savagery we have not seen in a long time."
He told France-Inter radio he was in contact with partners in the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Arab League about the possibility of setting up the humanitarian corridors.
Juppe suggested that aid groups like the Red Cross could use the corridors to bring medical supplies to cities like Homs.
France, Syria's one-time colonial ruler, was the first country to formally recognize Libya's opposition in an early stage of Moammar Gadhafi's crackdown on protests. France played a prominent role in the NATO-led campaign of airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces.
But while the European Union said protecting civilians caught up in Syria's crackdown on anti-government protests "is an increasingly urgent and important aspect" of responding to the bloodshed there, it fell short of endorsing Julle's corridor.
Other countries have taken an unambiguous stance against intervention. Last month, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria. They have argued that NATO misused a previous U.N. measure authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya to justify months of air strikes and to promote regime change.
They expressed fears that any new resolution against Syria might be used as a pretext for a similar armed intervention.