Syria vows "free elections" as pressure grows

AFP , Saturday 6 Aug 2011

Syria declares it will hold "free and transparent" elections by the end of 2011 as Arab and Western pressure intensifies over the suppression of pro-democracy protests

Syria vowed Saturday to hold "free and transparent" elections by the end of 2011 as Arab states in the Gulf joined a chorus of Western pressure over its deadly suppression of anti-regime protests.

An activist, meanwhile, said hundreds of tanks and armoured cars had been deployed in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor and around Homs in central Syria.

"Syria will hold free and transparent elections that will give birth to a parliament representing the aspirations of the Syrian people," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in a meeting with ambassadors posted to Damascus.

"The general elections will be held before the end of the year," Muallem said, quoted by the official SANA news agency.

The foreign minister stressed "the commitment of the Syrian leadership to the continued reform process and implementation of measures announced by President (Bashar) Al-Assad."

The embattled president issued a decree Thursday allowing opposition political parties, but the move was largely dismissed by the opposition as a ploy to appease protesters.

The oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf on Saturday turned up the heat on Damascus, with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council calling in a statement for an "immediate end to violence ... and bloodshed."

They urged a "resort to wisdom and introducing serious and necessary reforms."

Their call followed a pledge by the US, French and German leaders to consider new steps to punish Syria after a deadly crackdown on the first Friday of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting.

President Barack Obama spoke separately to France's Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Western nations cranked up pressure on Assad.

They "condemned the Assad regime's continued use of indiscriminate violence," the White House said. They "also agreed to consider additional steps to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in an interview to be published Sunday, said Assad no longer has a future in Syrian politics.

"I don't believe that Assad has a political future ahead of him which is supported by the Syrian people," Westerwelle told the newspaper Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

The Syrian government has sought to crush the democracy movement with brutal force, killing around 1,650 civilians and arresting thousands of dissenters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP by telephone that around 250 tanks and armoured cars were deployed in four districts of Deir Ezzor on Saturday.

The tanks were also posted around the airport in Deir Ezzor, many of whose residents started to flee the city from Wednesday, fearing imminent military action.

In Homs, "many armoured cars and other army vehicles have been posted in the Bab Al-Sibaa district," Abdel Rahman said, adding that activists in the city reported gunfire from early morning.

In the latest bloodshed, Abdel Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, said 22 people were killed on Friday, including seven after the special evening prayers for Ramadan.

Seven of the fatalities were in Irbin, three in Damir and one in Maadamiya, all near Damascus, he said by telephone. Three others were killed in Homs and one other in Nawa, southern Syria.

SANA, meanwhile, said two members of the security forces were killed and eight wounded on Friday in an ambush on a road in the northwestern Idlib region, near the Turkish border.

On Friday, communications were completely cut off as the army stepped up an operation to crush dissent in Hama, the central city where security forces killed at least 30 civilians and wounded dozens more earlier in the week.

More than 1,000 families have fled the city, according to Abdel Rahman.

"Thousands of demonstrators marched in Deir Ezzor, Daraa and Qamishli in support of the city of Hama despite the extreme heat" on Friday, said Rihawi, adding they numbered 30,000 in Deir Ezzor alone.

The call for Friday's protests came from activists on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, a driving force behind the demonstrations that have been calling for greater freedoms since mid-March.

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