UN gets tough on Syria as deaths rise
Damascus - The UN General Assembly on Thursday demanded an immediate halt to Syria's brutal crackdown, which human rights groups say has claimed more than 6 000 lives over the past 11 months.
In a strongly worded resolution adopted by a 137-12 vote, UN member states demanded that President Bashar al-Assad's regime stop attacking civilian demonstrators and start pulling its troops back to barracks.
China, Russia and Iran opposed the largely symbolic text put forward by Arab states with Western support just days after Beijing and Moscow vetoed a similar resolution in the UN Security Council.
Such a strong vote in favour of the resolution adds to mounting pressure on Assad to curb a crackdown that left at least 41 people dead on Thursday in fresh bloodshed as security forces bore down on focal points of dissent.
Egypt's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Osama Abdelkhalek, said the General Assembly had sent an "unambiguous message" to Damascus: "It is high time to listen to the voice of the people."
But his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Jaafari, lashed out at other Arab nations, saying Western powers had exploited the Arab League to "internationalise" the crisis.
"The Arab Trojan horse has been unmasked today," he said. Iranian counterpart Mohammad Khazaee warned the resolution would only deepen the crisis, "with all its ramifications to the region as a whole."
Assad's troops pummelled the central city of Homs for a 13th straight day on Thursday, with 18 people reportedly killed in Hama province and four others dying in the southern city of Daraa.
Another 19 people, including 11 from the same extended family, were killed in a "massacre" in Idlib province as troops assaulted a number of villages in the Sahl Erruj valley, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added.
"It's very methodical," said a Daraa resident, reached by telephone from Beirut, adding that government forces were attacking "village by village".
"The Free Syrian Army is trying to push them back but it is not equipped and is forced to retreat," the resident said, referring to rebel forces. "Regime troops are taking revenge."
Meanwhile, a human rights lawyer said blogger Razan Ghazzawi, a figurehead of the 11-month uprising against Assad's regime, had been arrested, along with prominent human rights activist Mazen Darwish, his wife and 11 others.
The lawyer, Anwar Bunni, said Ghazzawi was arrested in a raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, which is in central Damascus and headed by Darwish.
"We at the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies condemn these arrests and call on Syrian authorities to immediately release them," said Bunni in a statement echoed by Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Earlier, the opposition in Syria rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of single-party rule and urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.
The Local Co-ordination Committees, a main opposition activist group, called for a boycott of the vote and for stepped-up efforts to oust Assad.
"The draft constitution is no more than a political tool or a policy paper written by the barbaric regime," it said. "We see no alternative but to topple the regime."
The National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, another opposition group, said it also planned to boycott the vote.
"It is impossible for us to take part in this referendum before a stop to the violence and killings," its leader Hassan Abdel Azim told AFP.