Syrians rally against Assad, braving backlash

Ahram Online and AFP, Friday 17 Feb 2012

Thousands of Syrians rallied Friday to demand Bashar al-Assad's ouster, as the embattled president's forces unleashed their heaviest pounding yet of Homs in a brutal bid to crush dissent, monitors said

An anti-Syrian regime protester holds a poster in Arabic that reads, "veto or not, Bashar's days are over," in front of the Russian embassy, in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. (Photo:AP)

Protesters emerged from mosques accross Syria after the main weekly Muslim prayers, in line with a call by Internet-based activists for a rally for a "new phase of popular resistance."

They turned out after the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly backed an Arab League initiative calling on Assad to step aside, and ahead of a visit by a Chinese envoy pushing for peace.

In the capital, one civilian died and 12 were wounded, some critically, when they were fired on at a demonstration in Mazze neighbourhood, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least 10,000 people demonstrated in the southern town of Dael, in the province of Daraa, cradle of the revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, said the Britain-based monitor.

Other rallies were staged in the towns of Jasem, Inkhel and Nimr al-Hara, where security forces wounded some demonstrators when they opened fire on them.

In Homs, rockets crashed into strongholds of resistance at the rate of four a minute, according to one opposition activist who added the city was facing a humanitarian crisis.

"It's the most violent in 14 days. It's unbelievable -- extreme violence the like of which we have never seen before," said Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution.

"There are thousands of people isolated in Homs ... There are neighbourhoods that we know nothing about. I myself do not know if my parents are okay. I have had no news from them for 14 days," he told AFP by phone.

A tank fired into a residential part of Homs before bursts of machinegun fire clattered across the neighbourhood, according to a video activists uploaded to YouTube.

"The regime troops are still shelling at the moment but are reluctant to enter Baba Amr. They are on the periphery and are moving slowly. The army will lose if it begins urban warfare," activist Omar Shakir said later on Skype.

International rights groups have estimated that the assault on Homs has killed almost 400 people, and a medic reached on Skype said 1,800 have been wounded.

"There are injuries that cannot be treated because of a lack of medical equipment," Dr Ali al-Hazzuri told AFP. "There are casualties who are close to dying."

Nine bodies of unidentified people were found on Friday morning in Homs, said the Observatory, which also reported the heaviest shelling in the city for two weeks.

The violence came after the UN General Assembly demanded on Thursday an immediate halt to Syria's brutal crackdown on dissent, which human rights groups say has cost more than 6,000 lives in the past 11 months.

In a strongly worded resolution adopted by a 137-12 vote, member states demanded Assad's government stop attacking civilian demonstrators and start pulling troops back to barracks.

The resolution calls on Damascus "to stop all violence or reprisals immediately, in accordance with the League of Arab States initiative."

It was referring to a peace plan put forward by the pan-Arab bloc calling on Assad to hand power over to his deputy and for the formation of a unity government ahead of elections.

Russia, China and Iran opposed the non-binding resolution put forward by Arab states with Western support just days after Beijing and Moscow vetoed a similar resolution at the UN Security Council.

Such a strong vote in favour of the resolution adds to mounting pressure on Assad to curb a crackdown that left at least 41 people dead on Thursday as security forces bore down on focal points of dissent.

Egypt's deputy UN ambassador, Osama Abdelkhalek, said the General Assembly had sent an "unambiguous message" to Damascus: "It is high time to listen to the voice of the people."

But Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari lashed out at other Arab nations, saying Western powers had exploited the Arab League to "internationalise" the crisis.

"The Arab Trojan horse has been unmasked today," he said.

Iran's UN representative, Mohammad Khazaee, warned that the resolution would only deepen domestic chaos and enlarge the country's political and social crisis, "with all its ramifications to the region as a whole."

On the eve of his trip to Damascus, Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said Beijing opposed armed intervention and forced "regime change" in Syria.

Meanwhile, a human rights lawyer said blogger Razan Ghazzawi, a figurehead of the uprising, had been arrested, along with leading rights activist Mazen Darwish, his wife and 11 others.

During his official visit to Japan on Thursday, the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that the collapse of Al-Assad's regime is a ' matter of time', adding that reliance on military planes and heavy rockets against protesters shows such fact.

On Thursday, Syria's opposition rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of single-party rule, and urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.

One of them, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, told AFP "it is impossible for us to take part in this referendum before a stop to the violence and killings."

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