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Wednesday 14 December 2011

Syria’s death toll from violent crackdown rises sharply as U.N. action urged

Syria’s death toll from violent crackdown rises sharply as U.N. action urged

Syrians living in Jordan shout slogans against President Bashar al-Assad, during a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman. (Reuters)
Syrians living in Jordan shout slogans against President Bashar al-Assad, during a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman. (Reuters)
Six people were killed early on Wednesday near the Syrian city of Hama after their car was hit by a mortar shell, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Syrian Coordination Committees. The new deaths raise the death toll of violent crackdown on protesters within the past 24 hours to 47 people, mostly in Idlib, Al Arabiya said.

The bloodshed in the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey, highlighted the accelerating violence in Syria where an insurgency has begun to overshadow what started as peaceful street protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year rule.

Syrian activist Ammar Qurabi told Al Arabiya that a road map has already been planned for establishing safe corridors on the Syrian-Turkish borders. He said that the Turkish government was only waiting for an Arab and regional cover to apply the planned road map. “However, as more civilians are killed in Syria, Turkey might ask for a cover from the NATO,” he said.
The United Nations’ Navi Pillay said the death toll was 1,000 higher than an estimate she released 10 days earlier. It includes civilians, army defectors and those executed for refusing to shoot civilians, but not soldiers or security personnel killed by opposition forces, she said, according to Reuters.

The Syrian government has said more than 1,100 members of the army, police and security services have been killed and state media reported 17 military funerals on Tuesday for victims of “terrorist armed groups.”

Pillay said Syria’s actions could constitute crimes against humanity, issuing a fresh call for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said:

“The situation is totally unacceptable. The brutal repression of civilians must stop. Assad must listen to his people, to his neighbors, to the Arab partners, to Europe, to the world. We all have the same message: he should stop the violence against his own people and let the transition begin.”

The sharp rise in the death toll is bound to lend weight to those arguing for increased international intervention to stop the bloodshed in Syria which some fear is increasingly drifting towards civil war.

Assad, 46, whose minority Alawite family has held power over majority Sunni Muslim Syria for four decades, faces the most serious challenge to his rule from the turmoil which erupted in the southern city of Deraa on March 18.

A violent security crackdown failed to halt the unrest -- inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya -- which turned bloodier in the last few months as defecting soldiers join armed civilians in fighting back in some areas.

Mutineers from Syria’s regular army have banded together to set up the Free Syrian Army. Its gunmen have been active in the city of Homs to try to counter pro-Assad snipers who residents say attempt to intimidate the population into submission.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that army deserters attacked a convoy carrying security forces, killing at least seven people. There was no immediate report from state media of the attack, but the SANA news agency said security forces killed several members of an “armed terrorist group” in Idlib.

SANA also said border guards foiled an attempt by “an armed terrorist group” to cross into Syria from Turkey on Monday, the second such reported incident in a week. It said they shot dead two of the 15-strong group.

Syria has barred most independent journalists, making it hard to assess conflicting accounts of events there.

According to briefing notes seen by Reuters in New York, Pillay said that “independent, credible and corroborated accounts demonstrate that ... abuses have taken place as part of a widespread and systematic attack on civilians.”

More than 14,000 people were reportedly in detention, at least 12,400 had sought refuge in neighboring countries and tens of thousands had been internally displaced, she said, also citing “alarming reports” of moves against the city of Homs.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he too was troubled by Pillay’s report, but said outside intervention could lead to civil war and a far higher death toll.

He repeated accusations that Western countries had gone into “regime-change mode,” adding, “the tragedy is that if things were allowed to degenerate and to go in the direction of further provocation, of fanning further confrontation, then maybe (there would be) hundreds of thousands dead.”

Russia joined China to block Western efforts to pass a resolution against Syria in the U.N. Security Council.

The Security Council meeting came as Western nations ramp up pressure to condemn Assad’s campaign.

“Frankly we think that it is past time for the U.N. Security Council to speak up,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, denouncing Security Council silence on the Syrian regime as “unconscionable,” according to AFP.

“And we are again calling on our partners on the Security Council to be willing to take action and speak out for the innocents in Syria who are suffering at the hands of the regime, including Russia,” Nuland said.

Her comments echoed earlier remarks from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who said council members resisting action against Damascus needed to “change their mind.”

France’s U.N. envoy Gerard Araud said the council was “morally responsible” for the daily deaths by staying silent.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said Pillay should never have appeared before the council for a session that was part of a “huge conspiracy concocted against Syria from the beginning.”

Syria held municipal elections on Monday, portrayed by Assad’s government as part of a process leading to a parliamentary election next year and constitutional reform. But critics say local elections have little meaning in a country where power is highly centralized.

Assad has said reforms cannot be rushed in Baathist-ruled Syria, which is a close ally of Iran, a key player in nearby Lebanon and supporter of militant anti-Israel groups.

Russia said Western accusations that it was blocking U.N. action condemning the crackdown were “immoral” because the West was refusing to put pressure on armed rebel groups.

“There are those who refuse to put pressure on the armed, extremist part of the opposition and are at the same time accusing us of blocking the U.N. Security Council’s work. I would call this position immoral,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised comments.

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