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Syrian forces fire at protests despite Assad pledge

By Reuters
Friday, August 19, 2011 8:08 EDT
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AMMAN (Reuters) – Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad opened fire to disperse protests demanding his removal on Friday despite a pledge that he had ended the crackdown on a five-month uprising in which 2,000 people have been killed, activists said.

They said the shooting occurred in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and the southern Hauran Plain, where five people were reported wounded, as demonstrations erupted across the country.

The main midday Muslim prayers held on Friday have been a launch pad for huge rallies across Syria and have seen some of the heaviest bloodshed, with 20 people killed last week in defiant protests chanting: “We kneel only to God”.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect in the majority Sunni Muslim nation, told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that military and police operations had stopped.

But activists said two protesters were killed in Homs and a town northeast of Damascus on Thursday night and security forces fired machine guns in Hama to prevent a demonstration.

Similar attacks occurred in the Houla Plain north of Homs and in the town of Qusair on the Lebanese border, it said.

“Maybe Bashar al-Assad does not regard police as security forces,” said a witness in Hama, one of four big cities which bore the brunt of an escalated military crackdown this month in which activists say scores of people have been killed.

Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country.

But Internet footage of Friday’s protests suggested that although widespread they were smaller than at their peak in July, before Assad sent tanks and troops into several cities.

A doctor in Zabadani, 30 km (20 miles) northeast of Damascus, said army vehicles were in the town and snipers were on the roof to prevent crowds marching. A resident of Banias also reported an “unprecedented security presence”.

Protesters from Syria’s Sunni majority resent the power and wealth amassed by some Alawites, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, and want Assad to quit, the dismantling of the security apparatus and the introduction of sweeping reforms.

The violent repression prompted coordinated calls from the United States and European Union on Thursday for Assad to step down and Washington imposed sweeping new sanctions on Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon and Iraq and is an ally of Iran.

There is no immediate obvious alternative leader to Assad although the disparate opposition, persecuted for decades, has gained a fresh sense of purpose as popular disaffection has spread across the country.

“TORTURING, SLAUGHTERING”

U.S. President Barack Obama ordered Syrian government assets in the United States frozen, banned U.S. citizens from operating or investing in Syria and prohibited U.S. imports of Syrian oil products.

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.”

Diplomats said the European Union could decided to toughen sanctions to match the U.S. measures, including a ban on oil imports. Syria exports over one third of its 385,000 barrels per day oil production to Europe.

Adding to international pressure, U.N. investigators said Assad’s forces had committed violations that may amount to crimes against humanity. The United Nations plans to send a team to Syria on Saturday to assess the humanitarian situation.

Simultaneously, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Assad to step aside and said the EU was preparing to broaden its own sanctions against Syria.

The United States, Britain and European allies said on Thursday they would draft a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria.

But Russia, which has resisted Western calls for U.N. sanctions, said on Friday it also opposed calls for Assad to step down and believed he needs time to implement reforms.

“We do not support such calls and believe that it is necessary now to give President Assad’s regime time to realize all the reform processes that have been announced,” Interfax news agency quoted a foreign ministry source as saying.

SANCTIONS IMPACT

Despite the dramatic sharpening of Western rhetoric, there is no threat of Western military action like that against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, meaning Assad’s conflict with his opponents seems likely to grind on in the streets.

It may also take time for the diplomatic broadside, backed by the new sanctions, to have an impact on the 45-year-old president who took power when his father President Hafez al-Assad died 11 years ago after three decades in office.

Assad has so far brushed off international pressure and survived years of U.S. and European isolation following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, a killing many Western nations held Damascus responsible for.

But as well as Western condemnation, Syria also faces criticism from Arab states and its northern neighbor Turkey.

Rosemary Hollis, Middle East politics lecturer at London’s City University, said the U.S. and EU moves would leave Assad and his officials feeling even more isolated.

“It could backfire in the sense that it’s not going to moderate the behavior of the regime, quite the contrary … The distinct possibility now is that he will become more defiant,” Hollis said.

Syria’s economy, already hit by a collapse in tourism revenue, could be further damaged by Obama’s announcement. U.S. sanctions will make it very difficult for banks to finance transactions involving Syrian oil exports.

It will make it also challenging for companies with a large U.S. presence, such as Shell, to continue producing crude in Syria — although the impact on global oil markets from a potential shutdown of Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day oil industry would be small compared to that of Libya.

Assad says the protests are a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and said last week his army would “not relent in pursuing terrorist groups”. Syrian officials say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by armed groups they blame for the violence.

U.N. investigators said on Thursday Syrian forces had fired on peaceful protesters, often at short range. Their wounds were “consistent with an apparent shoot-to-kill policy”.

(Additional reporting by Alissa de Charbonnel in Moscow; Writing by Dominic Evans, editing by Peter Millership)

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