Assad Meets Arab ministers; 20 Killed in Clashes

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 20 people died in clashes and strikes paralyzed parts of Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad met Arab ministers seeking to end months of violence and authorities held a mass rally to show support for him.

The official state news agency quoted the head of the Arab League delegation, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, as saying the talks on Wednesday were “cordial and frank” and that the ministers would meet Syrian officials again on October 30.

In the central city of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad, people held a general strike to protest against his crackdown on seven months of unrest, in which the United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said armed opponents of Assad enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said insurgents enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

In the town of Hamrat, north of Homs, suspected army deserters killed nine soldiers in an attack on a bus with a rocket-propelled grenade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It was the latest incident in an armed insurgency emerging alongside the campaign of street protests.

Assad faces international pressure over his crackdown, with the United States and the European Union slapping sanctions on Syrian oil exports and businesses, helping drive the economy into recession.

“This will end with the fall of the regime. It is nearly unavoidable,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Wednesday.

“But unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene,” he told French radio.

ARAB MISSION

In Umayyad Square in central Damascus, tens of thousands of people gathered for what has become a weekly show of support for Assad organized by authorities.

State television showed them waving Syrian flags and portraits of the president, saying they were rallying under the slogan “Long live the homeland and its leader.”

The rally took place before the envoys from six Arab nations arrived in Damascus for talks with Assad following their call on October 16 for the opposition and government to hold a dialogue within 15 days at the League headquarters in Cairo.

“What is hoped is that the violence will end, a dialogue will start and reforms will be achieved,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said of the delegation, which is led by Qatar and also includes Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Yemen.

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Assad: Syria Won’t Stop Fight

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Tuesday his forces would continue to pursue “terrorist groups” after Turkey pressed him to end a military assault aimed at crushing protests against his rule.

Syria “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“But (Syria) is also determined to continue reforms … and is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states.”

While the two men held talks in Damascus, Syrian forces killed at least 30 people and moved into a town near the Turkish border, an activist group said.

The National Organization for Human Rights said most of the fatalities occurred when troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles overran villages north of Hama, while four were killed in Binnish, 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Turkey.

Washington expressed disappointment at Assad’s latest comments and said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected to talk to Davutoglu after his meetings in Syria.

“It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked about the comment.

She refused to comment directly on a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable quoted by McClatchy newspapers last week describing Assad in unflattering terms, calling him “neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father” (former president Hafez al-Assad).

Despite the growing international condemnation, including a sudden wave of Arab criticism, Assad’s forces pursued an offensive in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, residents said.

Activists say at least 1,600 civilians have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March, making it one of the bloodiest of the upheavals sweeping the Arab world.

Davutoglu held six hours of meetings with Syrian officials, including a two-hour session alone with Assad.

He told reporters on his return to Ankara that Turkey had demanded Damascus stop killing civilians and said his government would maintain contacts with all parts of Syrian society.

Davutoglu said Turkey hoped for a peaceful transition in Syria resulting in the Syrian people deciding their own future.

Neighboring Turkey has grown increasingly critical of the violence but earned a sharp rebuke on Sunday when an Assad adviser said Syria would not accept interference in its affairs.

Syria has faced nearly five months of protests against Assad’s 11-year rule, inspired by Arab revolts which overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

Last week Assad sent troops and tanks to quell the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Hama in central Syria and the army launched a similar assault on Sunday against Deir al-Zor.

An armored column also pushed toward the center of the city on Tuesday, with troops storming houses and making arrests in the provincial capital of an oil region bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland, a resident said.

“They are now about one kilometer from downtown. When they finish with one district, they move to another,” said the resident, who gave his name as Iyad.

Increasing the pressure on Assad, Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia issued a blunt warning that he risked turmoil unless he stopped the bloodshed and adopted reforms.

Kuwait and Bahrain followed the kingdom in recalling their ambassadors.

The withdrawal of envoys left Assad with few diplomatic friends bar Iran. Western states have imposed sanctions on his top officials, while states with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned Assad he is running out of time.

Nevertheless, no country has proposed military action such as that launched against Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi.

ASSAULT

In Deir al-Zor, a resident said on Monday 65 people had been killed since tanks and armored vehicles barreled into the city, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus on Sunday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said among the dead were a mother and her two children, an elderly woman and a girl. Syria has expelled most independent media since the revolt began, making it hard to confirm accounts.

Syrian authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted in March, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths and accusing them of killing 500 security personnel.

State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies floating in the Orontes river in Hama, saying 17 police had been ambushed and killed in the central Syrian city.

The official SANA news agency said on Monday the military was starting to pull out of Hama after it said they had helped restore order. Residents said there were still tanks in parts of the city and security forces were making arrests.

About 1,500 people were detained in Hama’s Jarajima district and troops killed three civilians, the Observatory said.

Activists say at least 130 people were killed in Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982, and one group has put the death toll at over 300.

Like most of Syria, ruled by Assad’s minority Alawite family, Hama and Deir al-Zor are mainly Sunni cities, and the crackdowns there resonate with Sunnis, who form the majority in the region and govern most Arab countries.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Ankara bureau; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Syria Tank Assault Kills 11 Near Turkey

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian troops shot dead 11 villagers on Wednesday, residents said, as authorities pressed on with a tank-led assault that has driven thousands of refugees across the northwest border with Turkey.

The assault on Jabal al-Zawya, a region 35 km (22 miles) south of Turkey that has seen spreading protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, was launched overnight, a day after authorities said they would invite opponents to talks on July 10 to set up a dialogue offered by Assad.

Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue. The Local Coordination Committees, a main activists’ group, said in a statement on Wednesday that 1,000 people have been arrested arbitrarily across Syria over the last week alone.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya, a teacher who gave his name as Ziad, told Reuters by phone that among the dead were two youths in the village of Sarja.

“An eleven-year-old child is also badly wounded by random gunfire. We cannot get him out of the village for treatment because the tanks blocked all roads and troops are firing non-stop,” he said.

Ammar Qarabi, president of the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation, told Reuters from exile in Cairo that at least four villagers died in the village of Rama when tanks fired machineguns on surrounding woods then on the village. Residents reported killings in other parts of the region, which is home to more than 30 villages.

“Jabal al-Zawya, was one of the first regions in Syria where people took to the street demanding the downfall of the regime. The military attacks have now reached them and they will likely result in more killings and in more refugees to Turkey,” said Qarabi, who is from the northwestern province of Idlib.

He said he based his information on several witnesses’ testimony. Syria has banned most international media, making it difficult to independently verify accounts of violence.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya said he heard large explosions overnight around the villages of Rama and Orum al-Joz, west of the highway linking the cities of Hama and Aleppo.

“My relatives there say the shelling is random and that tens of people have been arrested,” he said.

Another resident said 30 tanks rolled into Jabal al-Zawya on Monday from the village of Bdama on the Turkish border, where troops broke into houses and burned crops.

Rights campaigners say Assad’s troops, security forces and gunmen have killed over 1,300 civilians since the uprising for political freedom erupted in the southern Hauran Plain in March, including over 150 people killed in a scorched earth campaign against towns and villages in Idlib.

They say scores of troops and police were also killed for refusing to fire on civilians. Syrian authorities say more than 500 soldiers and police died in clashes with “armed terrorist groups,” whom they also blame for most civilian deaths.

Protests against Assad have been spreading despite military assaults and a fierce security crackdown, with activists expecting more students to join street demonstrations after exams end on Thursday.
Night-time demonstrations have intensified to circumvent heavy security in the day. The Local Coordination Committees said security forces shot dead one protester at a large rally on Wednesday night in Homs, 165 km north of Damascus.

Residents in Deraa, the cradle of the uprising, said tens of people were arrested in old quarter of the southern city on Wednesday, following demonstrations that reignited following a military assault two months ago led by Assad’s brother Maher.

Assad said in a speech last week that he had met delegations representing most Syrians to discuss the crisis and “felt love… I have never felt at any stage of my life.”

One of his advisers, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Sky News on Tuesday: “We hope that by conducting and hastening the national dialogue, we will be able to isolate any militant or violent group and work together with the international community to overcome that big problem.”

Assad has faced criticism from Western governments over the military campaign to crush the three-month uprising. France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe will meet his Russian counterpart later this week and will discuss the Syrian impasse in the hope of convincing Moscow to change its stance on a resolution condemning Syria at the United Nations.

French foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris was extremely concerned with the ongoing violence in Syria saying that “reforms and repression were not compatible.”

Valero, however, said that Syrian authorities took a positive step by allowing a meeting in Damascus on Monday of intellectuals that included several opposition figures.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed France’s guarded welcome of Monday’s talks, but called for an end to violence, the release of political prisoners and a right to peaceful protest.

“Protests across the country are still being met by unacceptable violence from the regime, and the reports of Syrian troop movements near the Turkish border are of serious concern,” he said.

In Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department said it was imposing sanctions against Syria’s security forces for human rights abuses and against Iran for supporting them.

The Treasury named the four major branches of Syria’s security forces and said any assets they may have subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen and that Americans are barred from any dealings with them.

Ankara has also become increasingly critical of Assad after backing him in his moves to improve ties with the West and seek a peace deal with Israel.

Turkey shares an 840 km border with Syria, a mostly Sunni country ruled by a tight-knit hierarchy belonging the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.

Assad had opened the Syrian market to Turkish goods, but Turkish container traffic to Syria has fallen sharply over the last month, businesses say.

Sawasiah, another Syrian rights organization headed by lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said a security campaign that has resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people across Syria since March, has intensified in the last few days.

Security forces arrested Farhad Khader Ayou, an official in the Kurdish Mustaqbal party, on Tuesday in the eastern province of Hasaka, Sawasiah said.

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