23 killed as Syria cracks down on protest

2011-08-20 07:55

Syrian forces killed at least 23 protesters yesterday as tens of thousands flooded the streets after Friday prayers, activists said, despite President Bashar al-Assad’s assurances that assaults on anti-regime protesters had ended.

Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey dismissed growing calls led by US President Barack Obama for Assad to quit, offering the embattled Syrian leader rare support despite a damning UN report on his “apparent shoot to kill” policy.

On the political front, a group of “revolutionary blocs” formed a coalition vowing to bring down the regime and paid tribute to more than 2 000 civilians killed in a crackdown on protesters since mid-March.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 people were killed, including an 11-year-old and a 72-year-old, in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of the anti-regime protests that erupted March 15.

Six were killed in the central city of Homs, one in the Harasta suburb of Damascus and another in the capital’s suburb of Douma.

The Observatory said security forces opened fire on protesters, also wounding 25 people, in the Ghabagheb, Inkhil, Al-Herak and Nawa neighbourhoods in Daraa, but the official Sana news agency blamed the shooting on “armed men”.

Sana said a policeman and a civilian were killed in Ghabagheb and six security forces were wounded.

People poured into the streets of major towns as they emerged from the weekly prayers, with the largest anti-regime demonstration reported in Homs.

Around 20 000 in Al-Khalidiyeh demanded the ouster of Assad, said the Observatory, which also reported rallies in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor, and in the northern cities of Latakia and Banias.

Some 10 000 people marched in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Amuda, according to an activist at the scene, while other protests took place in and around Damascus and in Hama in central Syria.

The Observatory said troops and security forces deployed in several areas to prevent protests from taking place, including in Latakia where pro-regime “shabiha’ militias pounced on worshippers as they emerged from a mosque.

Security forces opened fire and conducted arrests to prevent protests from spilling into streets in Damascus neighbourhoods.

Yesterday’s rallies put to the test a commitment given by Assad to UN chief Ban Ki-moon the previous day that his security forces had ended operations against civilians.

The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group, one of the drivers of the protests, had called for the demonstrations under the slogan, “Friday of the beginnings of victory”.

The civilian death toll from the security force crackdown on the protests has now passed 2 000, UN under secretary-general B Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council on Thursday.

And UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the council there was “reliable corroborative evidence” that Syrian forces were deliberately shooting anti-regime demonstrators.

Pillay said in an interview with France 24 television that her body had drawn up a list of 50 Syrians in senior positions that she said were responsible for violent repression.

Frustrated that international calls for a halt to the bloodletting were being snubbed by Damascus, US President Barack Obama on Thursday called for Assad to quit for the first time since the protests broke out.

“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Obama said.

His call was quickly echoed by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany while Spain followed suit yesterday.

But Russia and Turkey disagreed.

The opposition yesterday announced the creation of the so-called Syrian Revolution General Commission, joining 44 “revolution blocs” due to “the dire need to unite the field, media and political efforts” of the pro-democracy movement.

The Syrian opposition is becoming “more cohesive” and “more broadly representative” of the country as a whole, State Department’s deputy spokesperson Mark Toner told CNN.

“It’s a very fluid situation in Syria,” the US official said when asked if an anti-Iran opposition was ready to replace Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect who has forged a close alliance with Shiite and non-Arab Iran.

Meanwhile, the European Union added 20 new names to a list of Syrian individuals and businesses hit with sanctions, with a deal also now close for a ban on oil imports.

European nations buy most of Syria’s oil exports, which amounted to some 148 000 barrels a day in 2009, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

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