Syria activists defiant, hated tycoon turns to charity

AFP , Friday 17 Jun 2011

As thousands take on the street on Friday across Syria, Assad's army is continuing its massive crackdown on the town of Khan Sheikun near Jisr al-Shughur

People cross into Turkey in a rural area on the Turkish side of the border (Reuters)

Syrian activists vowed new protests Friday as troops stormed northern towns, while a hated member of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle pledged to turn over his fortune to charity.

As the country braced for another day of defiance, the army pressed its crackdown on dissent, sending tanks and troops into the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhun and surrounding villages, rights activists and witnesses said.

The deployment marks a continuation of military operations against centres of protest in the northern province of Idlib, where forces have targeted Ariha, Maaret al-Nooman, Jisr al-Shughur and its surroundings.

Witnesses told AFP at the Turkish-Syrian border that Shughur al-Kadima was one of the villages that came under attack on Thursday.

"The army came ... with tanks and positioned snipers in the area. They started shooting at anyone," said Abu Nuuar, a driver from Shughur al-Kadima.

"We left with nothing, absolutely nothing. We just took some clothes for the children," said 32-year-old Abu Ahmed, declining to give his surname.

He arrived at the border from Shughur al-Kadima with his six children, wife and sister's family after a dawn army crackdown.

"The army shot randomly with tanks and light weaponry. We walked through mountains and valleys and arrived here," he told AFP from across the border as his children gathered around him.

Halid, a neighbour of Abu Ahmed, fled to the border six days ago, fearing an attack.

"Our crime was to take part in protests. All around the world people can demonstrate but not us. It has been forbidden for 40 years. We protested and now that's the price we have to pay," said the father of two.

The Syrian army also attacked Janudiyeh, a few kilometres (miles) from the Turkish border, a Syrian activist helping the displaced people on the other side of the border told AFP by phone.

A young woman who fled her home in Janudiyeh said: "The army came in from all sides. They started to shoot in the middle of the village. People were wounded but we don't know what happened to them."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara would supply humanitarian aid to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence.

"There are at present more than 10,000 people just over our border, on the other side of the barbed wire," he told journalists.

"We have decided to help our Syrian brothers to meet their urgent needs for food," Davutoglu said a day after visiting refugee camps set up by the Red Crescent in Hatay province, adding the Syrian authorities had been informed.

In what is seen as an attempt by the authorities to defuse some of the anti-government anger, telecoms tycoon Rami Makhluf, Assad's cousin who is on a list of 13 Syrians facing EU sanctions, said he will allocate profits from his businesses to charity.

"Profits from the shares I own in Syriatel will be allocated to charity, humanitarian work and development projects" for people across Syria, Makhluf said in a statement obtained by AFP.

The statement said Makhluf owns 40 per cent of Syriatel, the country's largest mobile phone operator.

"I will not engage in any new projects that can generate personal gain and I will devote myself to charity and humanitarian work," Makhluf said in the statement.

Makhluf is widely despised by opponents for allegedly exploiting his relationship with the president to build his commercial empire, including Syriatel.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Tuesday said the violence has claimed the lives of 1,297 civilians and 340 security force members since it began in mid-March.

The United States, Britain and France are pushing for a Security Council resolution to condemn Syria, but Russia and China are resisting.

The European Union has also begun work to toughen sanctions against Syria. "The idea is to move up a level," said a diplomat in Brussels who asked not to be identified. "Talks are focusing on new names and entities."

The EU to date has slapped two sets of sanctions against Assad's regime, with EU foreign ministers in late May adding Assad to a blacklist of 23 Syrian officials hit by an assets freeze and travel ban.

Pro-democracy protests after the weekly Muslim main prayers have become a regular Friday feature, often leading to clashes with the security forces which rights activists say have killed almost 1,300 people since mid-March.

The call for protests came on the Facebook site "Syrian Revolution 2011," a motor of the revolt challenging Assad's autocratic rule.

A statement on the site said this Friday is dedicated to Saleh al-Ali, a hero of the Syrian revolution who fought against French occupation in 1918.

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