US leads calls for Syria's Assad to quit

2011-08-18 21:49

Washington - US President Barack Obama on Thursday led a chorus of calls by world leaders for Syria's president to step down, as the United Nations warned his regime could be guilty of crimes against humanity.

Obama also slapped harsh new sanctions on Syria - including freezing state assets and blacklisting of the oil and gas sector - in an escalation of pressure aimed at halting the regime's bloody crackdown on protests.

It was the first explicit US call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign since the pro-democracy uprising - inspired by the revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia - erupted in mid-March.

Activists say about 2 000 Syrians have been killed since then, as troops backed by tanks have assaulted several towns and cities.

"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 French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people," they said in a joint statement.

The European Union also joined the groundswell of calls for Assad to go, noting "the complete loss of Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy".

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay meanwhile said Syria may have committed crimes against humanity and urged the Security Council meeting later on Thursday to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

A report by Pillay described a "pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity".

It said Syrian security forces had targeting civilians with ground forces, rooftop snipers and aircraft "with an apparent shoot-to-kill policy".

The document also describes summary executions, including reports that "forces conducted regular raids in hospitals to search for and kill injured demonstrators", as well as allegations of torture and arbitrary arrests.

It urged an immediate end to "the excessive use of force against demonstrators and the killing of protesters, torture and ill-treatment of detainees and enforced disappearance".

On Monday, the UN Human Rights Council is to hold a special session on Syria requested by 24 members, including four Arab members -- Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

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