Syria deploys troops as UN meeting urged

DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syria bolstered its troops on Tuesday in the flashpoint town of Daraa as a rights group appealed for UN intervention in a bloody crackdown it said has killed 400 people since mid-March.

AFP photo

As the Daraa crackdown raged into a second day, UN Security Council nations discussed a statement proposed by four European powers who want to condemn deadly violence against protesters in Syria.

But the United States said that for now it will limit its response to the violent crackdown on civilian protests in Syria to diplomacy and possible sanctions.

Washington previously ordered non-essential embassy staff out of Syria, which has been shaken by six weeks of protests against President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule.

Amnesty International called for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

And UN rights chief Navi Pillay was invited to visit Damascus, a spokesman said, urging authorities to probe the killing of protesters.

Security forces firing live rounds and tear gas have killed at least 400 people since March 15, activists say, including 25 on Monday alone in Daraa, while scores have been arrested.

"Syrian security forces fired on unarmed protesters killing 400 people at least since the revolution was launched in March," the Syrian Human Rights Organisation (Swasiah) said in a statement.

"This barbaric behaviour is aimed at keeping the regime in place at the expense of civilians who are killed... The Security Council must convene rapidly to stop the bloodshed."

Late on Tuesday, the state news agency SANA reported the army "continued to chase armed groups and extremists in Daraa who attacked military positions, cut off roads and forced passers-by to stop so they could hit them."

It said three members of the security forces were dead and 15 wounded, without elaborating.

Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty said the regime was "clearly trying to shatter the will of those peacefully expressing dissent by shelling them, firing on them and locking them up.

"The Security Council needs now to step up to the mark and show leadership on Syria as it did on Libya.

"A consistent policy of zero-tolerance for crimes against humanity will send a signal to all governments that impunity for crimes under international law is no longer acceptable," Shetty said.

Activist Abdullah Abazid told AFP by telephone that security reinforcements entered Daraa on Tuesday, firing on residents and a mosque and also besieging the home of Muslim cleric Mufti Rizk Abdulrahman Abazeid, who quit last week in protest at the crackdown.

"The bullets continue against the people, but we are resisting," he said.

On Monday, 3,000-5,000 Syrian troops backed by tanks and snipers rolled into Daraa, residents and Abazid said.

Farther north in the protest hub of Banias, thousands took to the streets on Tuesday, chanting "freedom, freedom," amid reports an assault was imminent.

"We warn the corrupt security services against attacking our city Banias" like they did in Daraa, Sheikh Anas Ayroot, a protest leader, told protesters.

One rights activist who declined to be identified suggested forces had deployed on hills around Banias in preparation for an attack.

Security forces also deployed in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma where they set up identity checkpoints, a witness told AFP.

The Douma crackdown began on Monday and also targeted nearby Al-Maadamiyeh.

By Tuesday afternoon, Douma had become a "ghost town," one resident told AFP by telephone.

Security forces arrested three doctors from Douma's Hamdan hospital and forced patients to leave, even those in intensive care, witnesses said.

Also on Tuesday, authorities referred prominent dissident Mahmud Issa to a military court for owning a satellite phone, after he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Issa was twice jailed in Syria for a total of 11 years.

He said activist Qassem Azzawi was arrested on Tuesday for joining a protest last week, and that 43 people had been rounded up since Monday in countrywide raids but 11 others were freed on Tuesday.

Activists said at least 25 people were killed in Daraa on Monday, and Abazid said the bodies of 22 people had been retrieved.

The Daraa operation came four days after Assad scrapped nearly five decades of draconian emergency rule and abolished the repressive state security court as he faced growing dissent and calls for reform.

The army said troops entered Daraa "in response to calls for help" from citizens to rid them of "extremist terrorist groups" behind a spate of killings and sabotage.

Outlining the US approach to Syria on Tuesday, Jacob Sullivan, director for strategic policy, said Washington's "focus is... in the diplomatic and financial space at the moment."

"At the moment, we're not actively considering shutting down our embassy in Syria," said Sullivan, a close adviser to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At the Security Council, meanwhile, formal consultations on a statement condemning the deadly violence were to start after UN chief Ban Ki-moon had briefed the 15-member council.

Britain and France have made calls for "strong" action against the violence by Assad's forces.

The draft statement backs a call Ban for a "transparent" independent investigation into the killings.

Whether a statement is agreed will depend on the attitude of Russia and China, which traditionally resist initiatives they see as interfering in a country's internal affairs.

As he entered the Security Council, China's ambassador Li Baodong said he would "push for a political solution" in Syria.

"We are going to study the draft elements very seriously," he told reporters.

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