U.N. chief ‘deplores’ Syria border clashes


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday he deplores the cross-border shootings from Syria into Turkey and Lebanon ahead of a ceasefire deadline in the yearlong conflict that has pushed Syria to the brink of civil war.

Turkey said two officials working in a refugee camp near the country’s border with Syria were among five people wounded on Monday by gunfire coming from Syria as troops clashed with rebels nearby. Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed television channel said Syrian soldiers fatally shot a cameraman as he stood on the Lebanese side of the border.

“The secretary-general is alarmed by the reports of continued violence and human rights violations in Syria, which resulted in an increased flow of refugees into neighboring countries,” Ban’s office said in a statement.

“The secretary-general strongly deplores today’s fatal cross-border shootings from Syria into Turkey, as well as into Lebanon,” it said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to stop the use of heavy weapons and withdraw troops from towns by Tuesday as part of a U.N.-backed peace plan brokered by U.N. Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan has said the government and opposition must stop fighting at 6 a.m. local time (0300 GMT) on Thursday, if Damascus meets its first deadline 48 hours earlier.

The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year in his attempts to crush pro-democracy demonstrations across the country. Syria told the world body last week that 6,044 had died, including 2,566 soldiers and police.

The U.N. Security Council, including China and Syria’s staunch ally Russia, on Thursday unanimously adopted a statement endorsing the deadlines for an end to the Syria conflict and warning Damascus it would consider further steps if it failed to live up to its commitments.

Assad on Sunday said his foes must give written guarantees they would stop fighting and lay down their arms – a demand that was immediately rejected.

“The timeline for the complete cessation of violence endorsed by the Security Council must be respected by all without condition,” Ban’s office said.

Western diplomats have expressed skepticism about Assad’s intentions, noting he has broken previous promises to halt military action against civilian protesters.

Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott

Syria approves new constitution amid bloodshed


Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs and evacuate three people on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Foreign reporters trapped in the area were not evacuated and the bodies of two journalists killed there had not been recovered, it said.

While foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior Ministry on Monday said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than 8 million voters.

Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday’s vote, conducted in the midst of the country’s bloodiest turmoil in decades, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.

Officials put national voter turnout at close to 60 percent, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful of voters at each location. On the same day, at least 59 people were killed in violence around the country.

Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” and his main allies – Russia, China and Iran – fiercely oppose any outside intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.

But Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming the Syrian rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any action by the U.N. Security Council.

“I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Oslo.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe criticised the U.N. Security Council’s “impotence” on Syria, shown by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and accused the Syrian authorities of “massacres” and “odious crimes.”

In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Juppe said the time was ripe for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Assad he would be brought to justice.

“The day will come when the Syrian civilian and military authorities, first among them President Assad himself, must respond before justice for their acts. In the face of such crimes, there can be no impunity,” Juppe told the 47-member Geneva forum, which will hold an emergency debate on Syria on Tuesday.

HOMS BOMBARDED AGAIN

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

The ICRC has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.

ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent team had entered Baba Amro. “They have been able to evacuate three persons, including an aged woman, and a pregnant woman and her husband,” he said.

The trio were believed to be Syrian and did not include four Western journalists trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. A U.S. reporter and a French photographer were killed there on February 22.

International consternation has grown over the turmoil in Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the U.N.-backed NATO campaign in Libya.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: “We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.”

The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria’s central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

“I very much hope the United States and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council,” said Putin.

The new constitution drops a clause making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.

But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.

The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva with Juppe and Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

Iran is Assad’s closest ally. The main Shi’ite Muslim power, it has religious ties to Assad’s Alawites and is confronting the Sunnis who dominate the Arab League – both the Sunni Islamists who have done well out of the past year’s democratic changes and autocratic, Western-backed leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Walter Gibbs in Oslo, Peter Griffiths in London and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, David Stamp and Andrew Heavens

Syrian protesters chant “Bye Gadhafi, Bashar next”


Syrian protesters chanted “Bye, bye Gadhafi, Bashar your turn is coming” overnight, but President Bashar al-Assad showed few signs of cracking after months of demonstrations and his forces raided an eastern tribal region again on Thursday.

The new chant, inspired by the apparent collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, was filmed by residents in the Damascus suburb of Duma after prayers on Wednesday.

But in eastern Syria, tanks and armored vehicles entered Shuhail, a town southeast of the provincial capital of Deir al-Zor, where daily protests have taken place against Assad’s rule since the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, they said.

“Initial reports by residents describe tens of tanks firing randomly as they stormed the town at dawn. Shuhail has been very active in protests and the regime is using overwhelming force to frighten the people,” a local activist said.

Since Ramadan began on August 1, tanks have entered the cities of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, Deir al-Zor and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, trying to crush dissent after months of street protests.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an activist group based in Britain, said 11 civilians had been killed across Syria on Wednesday, including seven in the province of Homs.

State news agency SANA said “armed terrorist groups” killed eight soldiers when they ambushed two military vehicles near the towns of Rastan and Telbiseh.

Syria has expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts on the ground from authorities and activists.

Prominent cartoonist and Assad critic Ali Ferzat was beaten up in Damascus by a group of armed men and then dumped in the street, an opposition activist group said. SOHR said Ferzat was taken to hospital with bruises to his face and hands.

Ferzat, whose cartoons often mock repression and injustice in the Arab world, has criticized Assad’s repression of protests. He told Al Arabiya television three weeks ago: “For the first time there is a genuine and free revolution in Syria.”

EU OIL SANCTIONS POSSIBLE

The defeat of Gadhafi may encourage Western nations to step up moves against Assad. He has pursued parallel policies of strengthening ties with Iran and Shi’ite Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah while seeking peace talks with Israel and accepting European and U.S. overtures that were key in rehabilitating him on the international stage.

European Union diplomats said on Wednesday the bloc’s governments were likely to impose an embargo on imports of Syrian oil by the end of next week, although new sanctions may be less stringent than those imposed by Washington.

Syria exports over a third of its 385,000 barrels of daily crude oil output to Europe, mainly the Netherlands, Italy, France and Spain.

A disruption would cut off a major source of foreign currency that helps to finance the security apparatus, and restrict funds at Assad’s disposal to reward loyalists and continue a crackdown in which the United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed.

In a sign the prospect of sanctions was already having an effect, traders said French oil major Total had not lifted a cargo of naphtha from Syria’s Banias refinery which it had bought in a tender.

Arab League ministers will meet in Cairo on Saturday to discuss Syria. An official said they would discuss imposing a time frame for Assad to enact reforms.

But they would also call on “all parties to end the conflict,” the official said, in an apparent acceptance of Syria’s argument it faces armed opponents.

In an interview with state television this week, Assad said the unrest “has shifted toward armed acts.” Authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist groups,” who they say have killed an unspecified number of civilians and 500 soldiers and police.

“NO THREAT”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it was up to the Syrian authorities and people to find a way out of the unrest.

“The hope of the West is to attack Syria they way they intervened in Libya but the people and the government in Syria should sit down together and reach an understanding on reforms,” he told al-Manar television channel.

“The people should have the right to elections, freedom and justice (so) they should set the timeline about it (together).”

Human Rights Watch said in a new report the vast majority of civilian deaths documented by Syrian human rights groups “have occurred in circumstances in which there was no threat to Syrian forces.”

“President al-Assad has said he is pursuing a battle against ‘terrorist groups’ and ‘armed gangs,’ and Syrian authorities have claimed that they have ‘exercised maximum restraint while trying to control the situation’. Neither claim is true,” the report said.

It said Syrian forces had killed at least 49 people since Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on August 17 military and police operations had stopped, adding that on August 22 in Homs, Syrian forces “fired on a crowd of peaceful protesters shortly after a U.N. humanitarian assessment team left the area, killing four.”

The official state news agency quoted Assad as telling clerics during a Ramadan “iftar” meal on Wednesday the West was pressuring Syria “to sell out, which will not happen because the Syrian people have chosen to have an independent will.”

Editing by Dominic Evans and Sophie Hares