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The Malaysian Insider :: World

Thousands demand overthrow of Assad after deaths

Posted: 18 Apr 2011 05:46 PM PDT

Mourners attend the funerals of protesters killed in earlier clashes in Homs, April 18, 2011. — Reuters pic

AMMAN, April 19 — Thousands yesterday demanded the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the funeral of eight protesters killed in the central city of Homs as unrest swelled despite a promise to lift emergency law.

Activists in Homs said the eight were killed late on Sunday during protests against the death in custody of a tribal leader.

Wissam Tarif, a rights activist in contact with people in Syria, said the toll was higher and he had the names of 12 people killed in the city.

"From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar," the mourners chanted, according to a witness at the funeral.

YouTube footage showed thousands of people filling a wide city square.

Assad, facing a month of demonstrations against his authoritarian Baath Party rule, said on Saturday that legislation to replace nearly half a century of emergency law should be in place by next week.

But his pledge did little to appease protesters calling for greater freedoms in Syria, or curb violence that human rights organisations say has killed at least 200 people.

"Homs is boiling," a rights activist told Reuters from the city. "The security forces and the regime thugs have been provoking armed tribes for a month now."

Civilians who had taken to the streets "were shot at in cold blood", he said.

Further north in Jisr al-Shughour, about 1,000 people yesterday called for "the overthrow of the regime", echoing chants of protesters who overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, at the funeral of a man they said was killed by security forces.

Assad says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq.

The unrest, which broke out a month ago in the southern city of Deraa, has spread across Syria and presented the gravest challenge yet to Assad, who assumed the presidency in 2000 when his father Hafez al-Assad died after 30 years in power.

Western countries have condemned the violence but shown no sign of taking action against Assad, a central player in Middle East politics who consolidated his father's anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, while holding intermittent, indirect peace talks with Israel.

Pattern of killings

In the main port city of Latakia, activists reported deaths from clashes overnight.

"We heard there were several deaths yesterday," a rights activist from Syria said. "The pattern is repeating itself: protests, killings by security forces, funerals turned into protests, and more killing and vehement slogans against Bashar."

Tarif said there had been five deaths in Latakia overnight, when security forces opened fire on protesters. Ammar Qurabi of Syria's National Organisation for Human Rights said he had the names of two dead protesters.

Addressing his newly formed cabinet on Saturday, Assad said ministers should prepare a law to regulate demonstrations, which are illegal under the emergency law in place for 48 years and which bans gatherings of more than five people.

But his statement did nothing to calm the fury of thousands of people at a funeral on Sunday of a conscript whose relatives said had been tortured before he died.

At another funeral on Sunday in the town of Talbiseh, north of Homs, two witnesses said security forces killed three mourners when they opened fire on them.

State news agency SANA said "armed criminals" had opened fire on security forces, killing a policeman and wounding 11 others. It also said a military unit clashed with gunmen on the highway heading north from Homs, killing three gunmen.

"Protesting peacefully is something we respect but blocking roads, sabotage, and carrying out arson is something else and can no longer be ignored," SANA quoted reappointed Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying.

Opposition figures say they believe any legislation replacing the emergency rule is likely to retain severe curbs on political freedoms.

Syria has repeatedly blamed the unrest on foreign powers, and the Washington Post reported yesterday that the United States has secretly funded Syrian opposition groups.

It cited diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showing that the State Department funnelled as much as US$6 million (RM18.1 million) since 2006 to Syrian exiles to operate a London-based satellite TV channel and finance activities inside Syria.

Barada TV began broadcasting in April 2009 but has ramped up operations to cover protests.

US money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W. Bush after political ties with Damascus were frozen in 2005, the newspaper said, and continued despite President Barack Obama's efforts to re-engage with Assad. — Reuters

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West wants military, aid action to end Libya crisis

Posted: 18 Apr 2011 04:55 PM PDT

Libyan civilians being evacuated by a fishing boat from Misrata wait to disembark at the port of Benghazi, April 18, 2011. — Reuters pic

BENGHAZI, April 19 — Nato may have to intensify attacks on government forces to break the military stalemate in Libya, while the United Nations pushes for a humanitarian presence to help civilians trapped in the conflict.

Both approaches, aimed at carrying out a UN Security Council mandate to protect Libyan civilians from attack by President Muammar Gaddafi's troops, will focus on the western city of Misrata, the only west Libyan city still in rebel hands.

Hundreds of people are thought to have been killed in the seven-week siege of the port city, where thousands of foreign migrant workers are stranded. A rebel spokesman said at least 31 people were killed in Misrata on Sunday and yesterday by government shellfire and snipers.

Two months after the Libyan rebellion broke out in earnest, inspired by uprisings against autocratic rulers elsewhere in the Arab world, the insurgents control only the east of the country from their Benghazi stronghold, and part of Misrata.

Nato bombing has damaged Gaddafi's armour but not enough to break the stalemate, and the alliance may have no choice but to use naval gunfire or helicopters, analysts said — the latter vulnerable to ground fire by Gaddafi's troops.

"There's more risks using helicopters as they are easier to shoot down, and it's a serious problem if you have casualties or people captured," said Daniel Keohane of the EU Institute for Security Studies think tank.

Boxed in

Leaders of the US, Britain and French said last week they would not stop military action until Gaddafi quit.

"They've boxed themselves in by describing victory as Gaddafi leaving," said Keohane. "I don't think there's any way they can walk away now. There's a political imperative to carry on."

While Nato looked for a more effective way of attacking Gaddafi's forces despite limited resources, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said yesterday in Benghazi that she was extremely worried about the plight of civilians in Misrata.

"I very much hope the security situation will allow us to get into Misrata," she said. "No one has any sense of the depth and scale of what is happening there."

Before the rebellion, Misrata had a population of 300,000.

The European Union yesterday outlined a tentative plan to send European troops to Misrata to protect aid deliveries if asked by the United Nations, EU officials said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in Budapest, said Gaddafi's government had agreed to a humanitarian presence in the capital Tripoli. His spokesman, Farhan Haq, said this included an agreement on the entry of international humanitarian staff and equipment through the Tunisian border.

Details were scarce, and so far Libya has not agreed to a ceasefire to give aid providers an opportunity to work.

Previously, Nato leaders had ruled out sending ground troops into Libya, but EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said yesterday that "the 27 (EU members) have now adopted unanimously the concept of the operations" — if the UN requested it.

Any EU mission could involve hundreds of military personnel securing transport of supplies directly to Libya, in particular Misrata, and helping to supply food and shelter to refugee camps on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders.

EU troops would not have a combat role, except to protect the humanitarian mission, but analysts say the arrival of the first Western troops since the Libyan crisis erupted would be significant.

A chartered ship evacuated nearly 1,000 foreign workers and wounded Libyans from Misrata yesterday, the second evacuation ship in the past few days. Rebels said they had gained ground in fighting in the Tripoli Street area despite government shelling.

"It is clear Gaddafi wants to wipe out Misrata," rebel spokesman Abdelsalam told Reuters by telephone. "Nato's inaction is helping him carry out this plan. Are they waiting for a massacre to happen to realise that they need to change tactics?"

The Libyan government denies allegations that it is violating its people's human rights, and says it is fighting gangs of al Qaeda militants.

Pro-Gaddafi forces have also kept up an offensive on the rebels' eastern frontline outpost of Ajdabiyah, from where the rebels hope to retake the oil port of Brega, 80km to the west. — Reuters

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