Syria's Assad says military operations halted

Reuters , Thursday 18 Aug 2011

The US and EU are expected to ask Syrian President Al-Assad to step down as he tells the UN that armed operations have stopped while protesters are still being attacked

Syrian citizens, below right, wave to Syrian troops who withdraw from the Damascus suburb of Saqba, Syria, on Sunday, (AP).

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that military and police operations against pro-democracy protesters have stopped, but activists reported more bloodshed overnight.

Local activists said two protesters were shot dead by pro-Assad militiamen on Wednesday after nightly Ramadan prayers in the city of Homs, and security forces carried out raids on districts of Hama and the capital Damascus.

The United States was expected to call on Assad to step down, sources in Washington told Reuters. That call could come as soon as Thursday, with the European Union expected to follow suit, the sources said.

As well as the growing Western pressure, Assad also faces criticism from regional Arab states and neighbouring Turkey over his escalated military campaign against the uprising since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Aug. 1.

"Assad is trying to convince Turkey that the attacks have stopped, which could also help appease the United States, thinking he could once again stop Washington from calling on him to step down," a Western diplomat in Damascus said.

"But the operations have not even stopped."

Although Syrian authorities have announced the army's withdrawal from Hama and Deir al-Zor, residents say military units are still present in those cities. The army is also still deployed in Homs and the coastal city of Latakia.

Hama residents said Syrian forces raided homes in al-Qusour neighbourhood overnight, while hundreds of police and shabbiha militiamen stormed the Rukn al-Din neighbourhood of Damascus.

In the southern city of Daraa, where the protests first broke out in March, a resident said tanks and armoured vehicles stood at entrances of the city and in main squares around Daraa's old quarter. Security forces raided homes in the Sabeel district overnight, he said.

In a phone call with Assad on Wednesday, Ban expressed alarm at reports of widespread violations of human rights and excessive use of force by the Syrian security forces against civilians, the U.N. said in a statement.

"The Secretary-General emphasised that all military operations and mass arrests must cease immediately. President Assad said that the military and police operations had stopped," the statement said.

A U.N. official said last week nearly 2,000 civilians had been killed since the protests began five months ago. Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country

The U.N. human rights chief is expected to suggest that the U.N. Security Council refer Syria's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters to the International Criminal Court, envoys said.

In the besieged port city of Latakia, focus of the latest military campaign, residents said on Wednesday that Syrian forces raided houses in a Sunni district, arresting hundreds of people and taking them to a stadium.

Assad's forces have also attacked al-Raml, a seafront area where a Palestinian refugee camp was built in the 1950s.

Latakia is of particular significance to Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite community. The 45-year-old president, a self-declared champion of the Palestinian cause, comes from a village to the southeast, where his father is buried. The Assad family and their friends control the city's port and finances.

Some Palestinians have joined in demonstrations against Assad, even though Syria hosts exiled leaders of the Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement and other Palestinian groups.

Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said three refugees had been killed at the camp. Many had been wounded in the assault.

"UNRWA's information indicates that most of the inhabitants have indeed left and that there are only five to 10 vulnerable families remaining, unable to physically leave," Gunness said.

He said about 150 families had fled to Homs, in central Syria, where anti-Assad unrest has also been put down.

The United Nations said on Wednesday it had evacuated 26 non-essential staff from the country.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the 15-nation U.N. Security Council in a closed-door session on Syria on Thursday, along with U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

"OHCHR (Pillay's office) have indicated that their Syria report will find evidence that Syria has committed grave violations of international human rights law in its actions dealing with protesters over the past five months," a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Pillay also will say an international investigation is needed and she was likely to suggest the ICC would be appropriate, the diplomat said.

The ICC is a permanent war crimes court based in The Hague.

The council has referred only two cases to the ICC -- the situation in Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region and, earlier this year, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's crackdown against anti-government demonstrators.

Council diplomats say veto powers Russia and China would be reluctant to vote for a referral of Syria's case to the ICC at the current time.

Local activists in Syria said an unknown number of refugees from Latakia had fled to the northwestern border with Turkey, which had received more than 10,000 refugees from earlier assaults by Assad's forces on Idlib province, north of Latakia.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared the situation in Syria with that in Libya, where rebels have been fighting forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi since February.

"We have done our best on Libya, but haven't been able to generate any results. So it's an international issue now. Gaddafi could not meet our expectations, and the outcome was obvious," Erdogan said.

"Now the same situation is going on in Syria. I've sent my foreign minister, and personally got in touch many times, the last of them three days ago on the phone. In spite of all this, civilians are still getting killed." 

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