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Syrian protesters killed despite Assad pledge

Syrian soldiers atop military vehicles wave to residents on their way out of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, Syria. (AP)

Source : Reuters
Damascus | 20 Aug 2011

Syrian forces shot dead 14 protesters on Friday despite President Bashar al-Assad's pledge that his crackdown on dissent was over, activists said, as thousands marched across Syria, spurred on by U.S. and European calls for him to step down.

Most of the violence broke out in the southern province of Deraa where the five-month-old uprising against Assad erupted in March, triggering a harsh response in which U.N. investigators say Syrian forces may have committed crimes against humanity.

"Bye-bye Bashar; See you in The Hague," chanted protesters in the central city of Homs. "The people want the execution of the president," shouted a crowd in northern Idlib province, reflecting deepening antipathy to the 45-year-old Assad.

Security forces shot dead five people, including two children, in the town of Ghabaghab south of Damascus, said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Residents and activists in the Deraa towns of Inkhil and Hirak said another eight protesters were killed by security forces and one other died in the Bab Amro district of Homs.

The main midday Muslim prayers held on Friday have been a launchpad for huge rallies across Syria and have seen some of the heaviest bloodshed, with 20 people killed last week in defiant protests where people chanted: "We kneel only to God".

Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that military and police operations had stopped, but activists say his forces are still shooting at protesters.

"Maybe Bashar al-Assad does not regard police as security forces," said a witness in Hama, where security forces fired machineguns later on Thursday to prevent a night-time protest.

Syrian state television said the deaths in Ghabaghab were caused by gunmen who attacked a police post, killing a policeman and a civilian and wounding two others. It said gunmen also killed one person in Harasta, near Damascus.

Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports of violence in which the United Nations says 2,000 civilians have been killed. Authorities blame terrorists and extremists for the bloodshed and say 500 soldiers and police have been killed.

"UN moves"

Internet footage of Friday's protests suggested that although widespread they were smaller than at their peak in July, before Assad sent tanks and troops into several cities.

A doctor in Zabadani, 30 km (20 miles) northeast of Damascus, said army vehicles were in the town and snipers were on the roof to prevent crowds marching.

Protesters from Syria's Sunni majority want Assad to quit, the dismantling of the security apparatus and the introduction of sweeping reforms.

The United States and European Union on Thursday called on Assad to step down and Washington imposed sweeping new sanctions on Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon and Iraq and is an ally of Iran.

The shape of a post-Assad Syria is unclear, although the disparate opposition, persecuted for decades, has gained a fresh sense of purpose as popular disaffection has spread.

President Barack Obama froze Syrian government assets in the United States, banned U.S. citizens from operating or investing in Syria and prohibited U.S. imports of Syrian oil products.

Adding to international pressure, U.N. investigators said Assad's forces had committed violations that may amount to crimes against humanity. The United Nations plans to send a team to Syria on Saturday to assess the humanitarian situation.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Assad to step aside and said the EU was preparing to broaden its own sanctions against Syria. Diplomats said the measures might include a ban on oil imports. Syria exports over a third of its 385,000 barrels per day crude output to Europe.

The United States, Britain and European allies say they will draft a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria.

But Russia, which has resisted Western calls for U.N. sanctions, said on Friday it also opposed calls for Assad to step down and believed he needs time to implement reforms.

"We do not support such calls and believe that it is necessary now to give President Assad's regime time to realise all the reform processes that have been announced," Interfax news agency quoted a foreign ministry source as saying.

Assad says the protests are a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and said last week his army would "not relent in pursuing terrorist groups".

U.N. investigators said on Thursday Syrian forces had fired on peaceful protesters, often at short range. Their wounds were "consistent with an apparent shoot-to-kill policy".

 

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