Syrian forces shot dead at least 13 civilians in a continued military assault on the restive city of Homs and in attacks on pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted after prayers marking the main Muslim feast, activists said.
Qatar’s prime minister called for Arab states to meet next Saturday to weigh Syria’s failure to implement a deal struck with the Arab League to end bloodshed that was touched off by the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The Egyptian official news agency MENA said the gathering would address “the continuing violence and the government’s failure to stick to its obligations under the Arab Action Plan to solve the crisis in Syria.”
Arab leaders have ramped up criticism of Assad as the killings mounted, but are shied from demanding major political change in the country for fear chaos could ensue, given Syria’s volatile sectarian divisions. Syria is dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect while Sunni Muslims form the majority, Reuters reports.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Damascus was making “every effort” to comply with the Arab League plan, which envisages Syrian troops leaving protest-hit cities, and accused the United States of “direct involvement” in the bloodshed.
Syrian authorities have described increasing Arab criticism as unproductive and based on false media reports.
Damascus says the unrest has arisen largely from a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and that security forces are using legitimate means to confront “terrorists” and Islamist militants bent on wrecking a reform drive by Assad.
Opposition leaders say the demonstrations are driven by broad discontent with a corrupt repressive elite, not by violent extremists, and that Assad’s promises of reform have been discredited by his continuing military crackdown on protesters.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said Assad went to the eastern provincial capital of Raqqa on Sunday where he joined Eid prayers with “a number of notables and popular, union and party organisations and a crowd of Raqqa citizens.”
“The stand Syrians are making against terrorism and outside intervention is the basis for Syria’s steadfastness… We have no choice except winning any battle that targets our sovereignty,” SANA quoted Assad as saying.
NO LET-UP IN CRACKDOWN
Most of the deaths on Sunday occurred in Homs, 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus, where a main district has been under tank bombardment since the day before Syrian authorities agreed in Cairo to the Arab League initiative on Wednesday.
Under the deal, the army was supposed to pull out of turbulent cities, political prisoners would go free and talks with the opposition would begin within two weeks.
A demonstrator was shot dead when security police fired at a protest in Hama, north of Homs, demanding the removal of Assad, and three were killed in the northwestern province of Idlib, said the activist Syrian Revolution General Commission.
The organisation said in a statement that at least 10 protesters were injured in the town of Talbisah near Homs and in Harra in the Hauran Plain in Syria’s south.
Fifty protesters were arrested after a demonstration in the Damascus district of Kfrar Souseh. Troops and militiamen loyal to Assad deployed in several Damascus suburbs, surrounding mosques to prevent crowds from rallying after the early morning prayers for the feast of Eid al-Adha, the commission said.
“Idlib saw big demonstrations across its towns and villages this morning. There is disillusionment that the Arab League agreement has failed to curb the repression,” local activist Raed Ayham told Reuters by phone.
“The army is escalating the crackdown in the hope of wrapping this uprising up before the Arabs take more steps against the regime. Assad has not understood that the killings are only feeding the opposition against him.”
Syrian authorities have banned most non-official media since the revolt against 41 years of rule by the Assad family and their Baath Party erupted in March, making independent verification of events difficult.
Activists and residents said tank fire killed at least 13 civilians and wounded dozens in Homs on Saturday. The day before security forces killed at least 19 people and wounded dozens across Syria, mostly in shootings at protests. State media denied that any protesters had been killed on Friday.
The Syrian official news agency said a group of what it described as Homs notables met the provincial governor and agreed to “work together to achieve more stability and stopping armed terrorist groups from messing with the security of citizens and the homeland.”
SANA quoted the governor as saying that the authorities were “serious” about implementing an amnesty announced last week to anyone with weapons if they were not involved in killings. The agency said four soldiers and police, including two from Homs, killed in violence were buried on Sunday.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria had reacted dismissively when asked if she thought Syrians should participate in the amnesty, saying: “I wouldn’t advise anybody to turn themselves in to regime authorities at the moment.”
“We have a long, deep history of broken promises by the Assad regime,” Victoria Nuland told reporters on the weekend.
In extracts of letter by Syria to the Arab League and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon published in state media, Moualem said the U.S. remarks were “a direct involvement in creating violence and sectarian strife in Syria.”
“The Syrian government has dealt positively with the Arab League initiative and is making every effort to implement it and hopes that (the League) would take note of the U.S. involvement in the bloody events in Syria,” wrote Moualem.
Syrian authorities say Islamist militants and foreign-backed armed gangs have killed 1,100 members of the security forces during the uprising. The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown.
In Cairo on Saturday, the head of the Arab League said it was seriously concerned by the violence in Syria, and appealed to Damascus to abide by steps agreed with Arab states to protect civilians and set Syria on a course of political dialogue.
In an address to Syrians aired live on al Jazeera television, prominent opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun said the Syrian National Council, formed in Istanbul two months ago, had asked the Arab League and United Nations to help protect Syrian civilians by sending in international human rights monitors.
Western leaders have called for Assad to make way for a democratic succession. He has rejected such calls as interference. But, given Syria’s location along fault lines of Middle East conflict, Western countries have little stomach for real intervention, such as the NATO air strikes that were key in the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to a popular insurgency.
Assad has been strengthening an alliance with Shi’ite Iran, started by his late father, President Hafez al-Assad, while continuing his policy of avoiding confrontation with Israel on the occupied Golan Heights frontier after a 1974 cease-fire.
The opposition has so far rejected talks with Assad as long as violence continues and has said the only way to restore peace is for the president to step down immediately.
“How can we talk about a dialogue when Syrians cannot meet each other, express an opinion or an ideology without being in danger? These rights have to be guaranteed for participation in public issues,” said dissident Aref Dalila, a prominent economist who was jailed for eight years after criticising a mobile phone concession that was awarded to a cousin of Assad.