Syria reportedly moving chemical weapons


U.S. officials are warily watching as Syria begins moving undeclared chemical weapons out of its storage facilities.

Syria’s Assad regime may be preparing to use the weapons against rebels fighting its control, or may be moving them to safeguard them against opponents and to confuse western governments, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Opposition leaders and western governments say as many as 15,000 people have been killed by the regime in nearly 16 months of the uprising.

The weapons in transit – which reportedly include serving nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide – are creating increasing concern in Washington and elsewhere.

“This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch,” one U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.”

The Obama administration has begun to hold classified briefings about the new intelligence, the paper reported.

The Syrian government rejected reports that it was moving its weapons.

“This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue,” said Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told the Journal. “If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can’t they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?”

Homs shelled as Syria demands ‘neutral’ U.N. mission


Syria challenged the United Nations chief over the size and scope of a U.N. truce monitoring mission on Wednesday, resisting a larger presence as its army shelled targets in the city of Homs in violation of the ceasefire.

Despite the seven-day-old truce agreement between government and rebel forces, explosions rocked the battered Khalidiyah quarter of Homs as the army resumed what has become a daily barrage of heavy mortar shelling, and plumes of black smoke drifted over the rooftops.

In northern Idlib province, six members of the security forces were killed by a bomb placed by an “armed terrorist group”, state news agency SANA said. It was the second such attack in two days.

While the truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week, in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, the army has kept up attacks on rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Beijing that no more than 250 truce monitors were needed, and they should come from what he called “neutral” countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which have been more sympathetic to Assad than the West and the Arab League states.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to present proposals for the next phase of the mission on Wednesday to the Security Council. He says more monitors are needed for credible supervision of the truce in a country the size of Syria in the 13th month of a conflict marked by extreme violence and over 10,000 deaths.

An advance party of a half a dozen U.N. peacekeepers in blue berets, led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, toured towns near Damascus on Wednesday in two white U.N. Land Cruisers with a Syrian police escort.

In Erbin their convoy was mobbed by anti-government protesters who chanted demands to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. A banner was plastered on one U.N. car reading: “The butcher continues killings. The observers continue observing, and the people continue with their revolution. We only bow to God.”

With the flashpoint cities in Syria scattered over several hundred kilometers, Ban said he had asked the European Union if it can supply helicopters and planes to make the proposed monitoring mission rapidly and independently mobile, but Moualem said Syria would supply air transport if necessary.

A political source in neighboring Lebanon said Damascus has already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.

The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that might require 50,000 troops or more. Russia and China, Syria’s powerful friends on the Security Council, have made clear they would block a U.N. mandate to use force. They are likely to back Damascus as the terms of the mission are thrashed out later this week.

Assad says Syria is under attack by foreign-backed terrorist and that for their own safety, the unarmed observers would have to coordinate every step of their operation with Syrian security to protect them from “armed gangs”.

STILL NO PULLBACK

The rebel Free Syrian Army fighting to topple Assad says it will stop shooting if he keeps his pledge to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw tanks, heavy weapons and troops from urban areas, which critics say he clearly has not done since the truce took effect a week ago.

Apart from the shelling of targets in Homs, the city at the heart of the revolt, troops have swept towns and villages in raids to arrest suspected opponents of Assad. Activists say scores of people have been killed since the ceasefire officially came into force last Thursday.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that four law enforcement members and a civilian were killed on Tuesday when “an armed terrorist group threw a bomb at a bus” in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city after the capital, Damascus.

It said terrorists were attacking and killing loyalist troops in their homes and kidnapping judges.

Internet video showed what anti-Assad activists said was renewed shelling of Homs shortly after dawn on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, reported explosions and heavy gunfire in the southern city of Deraa early on Wednesday. It confirmed the five killed by a bomb in Aleppo.

ADVANCE PARTY

Ban said on Tuesday that the ceasefire was being “generally observed”, though there was still violence. He said the 250 observers Assad will accept would be “not enough, considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.

Annan delivered a status report to Arab League ministers, who called on Assad to let the U.N. observers do their job.

“We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. “We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.”

Equipment for the mission, including vehicles, is already being transported to Syria via Beirut from a U.N. logistics base in Brindisi, Italy.

Diplomats say Annan’s main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria’s supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.

TIME TO ARM THE REBELS?

The mission must have Syrian consent, and Moualem said “this commitment does not cancel out the right to self defense and appropriate response against any attack on government forces, infrastructure, civilians and private or state property”.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria’s powerful, Russian-armed forces, but other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war, threatening the wider region.

Russia is also critical of Western and Arab states backing the Syrian opposition-in-exile in the “Friends of Syria” group.

France said it would host a foreign ministers meeting of the group on Thursday in Paris, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the fragile ceasefire.

Western sanctions have halved Syria’s foreign reserves and should be stepped up to force Damascus to comply with the U.N.-backed peace plan, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told officials from 57 countries meeting in Paris.

Additional reporting by Ayat Basma and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Will Waterman

West pushes U.N. Syria vote despite Russian criticism


Western powers brushed aside Russian criticism of a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution authorizing an advance team of U.N. observers to monitor Syria’s fragile ceasefire and said on Friday they hoped to put it to a vote this weekend.

The U.N. missions of Britain, France and Germany said the U.S.-drafted resolution was co-sponsored by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Morocco, the sole Arab nation on the council.

The draft, obtained by Reuters, calls for the initial deployment of up to 30 unarmed U.N. observers to Syria in line with a request by U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who had criticized an earlier version of the U.S. text, presented the 15-nation council with his own draft that Moscow would prefer to vote on.

“We have put together a shorter version of (the U.S.) text,” Churkin told reporters after closed-door discussions on Syria. “We had this understanding yesterday that it should be to the point, pragmatic, specific about putting in boots on the ground, (an) advance party of the monitoring team.”

Several diplomats said negotiations with Russia to find mutually acceptable language were slow and difficult. They said the council was unlikely to reach an agreement on Friday and they would likely reconvene on Saturday after delegations have had a chance to receive instructions from their capitals.

U.N. diplomats say Syrian ally Russia supports Annan’s peace efforts but is working hard to shield Damascus from what it sees as a Western push for Libya-style “regime change.” Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s 13-month assault on anti-government protesters.

The competing draft resolutions are a response to Annan’s request that the council move quickly to get the first members of an observer force, which will ultimately have up to 250 monitors, in Syria to lock in the fragile ceasefire.

Several Western diplomats said negotiations were focusing on the U.S. draft, not the Russian one.

U.N. OBSERVERS ON STAND-BY

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the U.N.-Arab League envoy hoped the council would pass the resolution on Friday.

“The (U.N.) Department of Peacekeeping Operations is working around the clock to find the necessary number of troops for the full observer mission eventually,” he said.

“At the moment we have the advance team standing by to board planes and to get there, to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible,” he said.

A U.N.-backed ceasefire aimed at halting more than a year of bloodshed in Syria appeared to be holding on Thursday, but forces loyal to Assad fought rebels near the border with Turkey on Friday, threatening the truce.

The latest U.S. draft would have the council say Damascus should “ensure full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access throughout Syria for all (observer) mission personnel as deemed necessary by the mission.” Russia’s draft, seen by Reuters, has deleted that paragraph.

The first U.S. draft had made a number of demands on the Syrian government and did not explicitly demand anything of the opposition. That, council diplomats said, annoyed Russia.

The new U.S. draft includes proposed Russian language about the rebels, saying the council “demands that all parties in Syria, including the opposition, immediately cease all armed violence in all its forms.”

It also has the council “condemning the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities, recalling that those responsible shall be held accountable.”

It ends with a vague threat of “further steps” by the council if Syria does not comply with the resolution.

Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham

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

EU slaps sanctions on Assad’s family; mortars hit Homs


The European Union slapped sanctions on the mother, sister and influential wife of President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, increasing pressure on Syria to halt its bloody crackdown against a year-long uprising.

The trio were among 12 Syrians added to a list of figures already hit with EU travel bans and asset freezes, diplomats said. Foreign ministers in Brussels also barred European firms from trading with two Syrian oil companies.

“With this new listing we are striking at the heart of the Assad clan, sending out a loud and clear message to Mr. Assad: he should step down,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal.

The decision came on a day of renewed violence across Syria, with the army firing at least 24 mortar rounds into the rebellious city of Homs, in central Syria, killing up to eight civilians, opposition supporters said.

Live television feeds from around Syria showed a slew of anti-Assad rallies, including in the Damascus district of Barzeh, in the northwestern city of Hama, in Qamishli in the Kurdish east, and in the southern city of Deraa.

“Damascus here we come,” read several placards held up by the relatively small crowds. Activists said eight people were wounded after demonstrations near five Damascus mosques were broken up.

On the diplomatic front, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who is leading international efforts to stop the relentless mayhem, planned to travel to Moscow and Beijing this weekend for talks on the crisis, his spokesman said.

Russia and China have resisted Western and Arab demands that Assad stand down and have vetoed two U.N. resolutions highly critical of Damascus. However, they supported a Security Council statement this week calling for peace, in a move that analysts saw as a sign they were adopting a tougher stance on Syria.

Nevertheless, both Russia and China voted against a call by the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday to extend a probe into violations committed by Syrian forces. The motion passed regardless, with 41 of the forum’s 47 members voting in favor.

More than 8,000 people have died in the rebellion, according to U.N. figures, but Western powers have ruled out military intervention in such a sensitive part of the world, putting the emphasis instead on economic sanctions and diplomacy.

“THE REAL DICTATOR”

The new EU sanctions build on 12 previous rounds of sanctions aimed at isolating Assad, including an arms embargo and a ban on importing Syrian oil to the European Union.

Full details will be released on Saturday, when the measures come into force, but diplomats confirmed that Assad’s British-born wife was on the new list.

A former investment banker, Asma cultivated the image of a glamorous yet serious-minded woman with strong Western-inspired values who was meant to humanize the isolated Assad family, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than 40 years.

But that image has crumbled over the past year, and she has stood resolutely by her husband’s side, describing herself as “the real dictator” in an email published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper last week.

Her ancestral home is Homs, now a symbol of the revolt which has been subjected to particularly fierce government attack. Video from the city on Friday showed plumes of smoke rising from residential areas after being hit by apparent mortar fire.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and has a network of contacts in Syria, said the army clashed with defectors in the north-eastern town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey. Three soldiers and one defector were killed as the army fired heavy machineguns and mortar rounds, it said.

Other activists working for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported 15 deaths on Friday around the country. They also said rebels had captured 17 members of the security forces in the northwestern Idlib province.

It is impossible to verify reports from Syria because authorities have denied access to independent journalists.

Syria has said 3,000 members of the security forces have died in the uprising, which Damascus blames on terrorist gangs and foreign interference.

ANNAN REVIEWING SITUATION

Annan has drawn up a six-point plan to end the unrest, including a demand for a ceasefire, political dialogue and full access for aid agencies. It also says the army should stop using heavy weapons in populated areas and pull troops back.

He sent five experts to Damascus earlier this week to discuss the deployment of international monitors—something Assad has resisted. The team has now left Syria and there was no immediate word if they had made any progress.

“Mr. Annan and his team are currently studying the Syrian responses carefully, and negotiations with Damascus continue,” his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement from Geneva.

Asked whether Annan would be returning to Damascus for talks with Assad, Fawzi told a news briefing: “He will at some point decide to go back, but this is not the time yet.”

Instead he will head to Russia and China, no doubt hoping to persuade them to bring their influence to bear on Syria.

Unlike the Arab League and Western countries, Annan has not explicitly called for Assad to step down, talking only about the need for dialogue and political transition.

Russia has historically close ties to Syria, which is home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. But analysts believe Moscow is starting to hedge its bets about Assad’s fate and is positioning itself for his possible fall.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; in Brussels and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Jon Boyle

Violence across Syria; soldiers killed in ambushes


Syrian government forces killed dozens of people in the northern city of Idlib, dumping their bodies in a mosque, while some 22 soldiers died in two separate rebel ambushes, opposition activists said on Tuesday.

The army intensified its assault on the Idlib province near the Turkish border, intermittently shelling built-up areas and spraying houses with machine gun fire in a bid to dislodge anti-government fighters.

Clashes were also reported in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and security forces shelled Syria’s third largest city, Homs, as the year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule increasingly resembles a civil war.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died in the uprising and its refugee agency said on Tuesday that some 230,000 Syrians had fled their homes during the past 12 months, of whom around 30,000 have sought safety abroad.

In an apparent bid to deter the exodus, Syrian forces have laid landmines near its borders with Lebanon and Turkey, along routes used by refugees to escape the mayhem, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said.

Speaking after meeting opponents of Assad in Turkey, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said he was expecting to hear later on Tuesday the response from Syria to “concrete proposals” he had made to end the escalating violence.

By evening, there was no word on an answer, although the Syrian parliament said Assad had ordered a legislative election for May 7. It will be held under a new constitution, approved by a referendum last month which the opposition and their Western and Arab backers dismissed as a sham.

Both Russia and China have welcomed Assad’s reform pledges, including the promised election, and have blocked moves in the United Nations to censure the Syrian leader.

But the U.S. State Department was dismissive of the plan: “Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we’re seeing across the country? It’s ridiculous,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

STREWN BODIES

Following a brutal crackdown in the central city of Homs, the army has intensified its operations in the north and has been shelling the town of Idlib for the past three days.

An activist in the town, speaking by telephone, said security forces had killed more than 20 people trying to leave the area in the past two days and dumped their bodies in al-Bilal mosque. When locals went to inspect the corpses, they too came under fire, pushing the death toll above 50, he said.

Another activist gave a slightly lower death toll.

“When people came from the neighborhood early this morning, the security forces also started firing at them. In total, about 45 people were massacred,” said the man, who like many in Syria gave only his first name, Mohammed, for fear of reprisals.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.

Video footage showed the bodies of several unidentified men strewn on the floor of the mosque. An unseen voice said it was impossible to move them due to heavy shelling.

Army defectors killed at least 10 soldiers in an ambush in Idlib region, while rebels also killed 12 members of the security forces in the southern town of Deraa, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Following meetings with Assad at the weekend in Damascus, former U.N. chief Annan held talks in Ankara with the Syrian National Council (SNC) – a fractious assortment of Assad opponents whose leadership lives abroad.

“I am expecting to hear from the Syrian authorities today, since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider,” Annan told a subsequent news conference.

“Once I receive their answer we will know how to react.”

Annan has not disclosed what his proposals entailed, but a diplomatic source said the U.N. envoy had told Assad he wanted an immediate cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to the conflict zones and political dialogue.

SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said the aim remained to secure a political and diplomatic solution, otherwise foreign governments would deliver on promises to supply weapons to rebel forces.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arms to be sent to help in the fight Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite sect and is allied to Shi’ite Iran.

However, the SNC is deeply divided, as resignations from the council showed. Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge and veteran dissident, quit the SNC and another opposition leader, Kamal al-Labwani, said he too was preparing to resign.

“There is a lot of chaos in the group and not a lot of clarity over what they can accomplish right now,” Maleh told Reuters in explaining his resignation from the SNC. “We have not gotten very far in working to arm the rebels.”

Syria lies in a pivotal position, bordering Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. Its 23-million population comprises a mix of faiths, sects and ethnic groups, and analysts say the gathering conflict could destabilize the entire region.

While the rebels have only light weapons, the army has repeatedly used tanks, mortars and artillery.

“I have heard shelling in the Old City since 8 this morning,” one activist in Homs told Reuters. “There is gunfire everywhere,” he added, asking to be referred to only as Sami.

Human Rights Watch said anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines of Russian origin had been found near Syria’s borders, with indications they had been planted by the army this year.

Syria, like Russia, the United States and over 30 other states, has not signed up to a global ban on landmines.

“Any use of anti-personnel landmines is unconscionable,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at HRW.

Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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

Syria forces kill seven protesters as world pressure on Assad grows


Syrian security forces shot dead seven people on Friday, rights campaigners said, as protesters defied a nationwide crackdown by President Bashar Assad which world leaders condemned.

Three protesters were killed in the central city of Homs, another three in the Damascus suburb of Qatana and one in the town of Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon, they said.

Troops also fired at protesters calling for the “overthrow of the regime” in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, a rights group and residents said.

Rights groups estimate at least 1,000 people have been killed over 10 weeks. Leaders at a Group of Eight meeting in France said they were “appalled” at the killing of peaceful protesters, demanding an immediate end to the use of force.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Syria security forces kill six as protests erupt across the country


A human rights activist said Syrian security forces have killed six people during widespread protests on Friday.

Thousands of protesters held rallies in major areas across the country, including the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs.

The activist said five people were killed Friday in the central city of Homs and one in Hama. He asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals by the government. He is a senior member of a human rights group that compiles death toll figures in Syria.

Witnesses said security forces also opened fire at protesters in the town of Tel, just north of the capital, wounding demonstrators.

Also on Friday, Syrian security forces arrested opposition leader Riad Seif at a pro-democracy demonstration in the Midan district of Damascus, according to his daughter and human rights campaigners.

Read more at Haaretz.com.