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Middle East
Protesters 'killed' in Syrian town
Crackdown in Rastan continues, as opposition conference ends with declaration demanding Syrian president's resignation.
Last Modified: 02 Jun 2011 18:09

Syrian security forces have killed at least 13 civilians in the latest crackdown on pro-democracy protests, rights groups say, as opposition leaders meeting in Turkey called for president Bashar al-Assad to step down and lay the framework for democratic elections to be held within a year.

Security forces, backed by tanks, have laid siege to the central town of Rastan since Sunday in an effort to crush protests against Assad's rule there.

The 13 civilians were killed by gunfire from snipers and security forces storming Rastan, which is under curfew, said Ammar Qurabi, the head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, and Razan Zaitouna, a lawyer.

Earlier, Zaitouna said that 41 people had been killed in the town, including a four-year-old girl who was killed as security forces shelled neighbourhoods on Tuesday.

Five of the victims were buried in Rastan on Wednesday, she said. Syrian forces also killed nine civilians on Tuesday in the town of Hirak, according to Qurabi.

Syrian state media reported that four soldiers were killed by "armed terrorist groups" in Rastan on Wednesday were buried on Thursday.

"We have become refugees in our own country,'' a resident of Rastan told the AP news agency. He said that he had fled his home in the centre of the town to escape arrest and was now sleeping in the woods.

"My family and sisters are still there, and I don't know how they are doing,'' he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Call for Assad's exit

At the conference in the Turkish city of Antalya, Syrian opposition activists called for Assad to resign immediately and cede powers to his vice-president.

"The delegates have committed to the demands of the Syrian people to bring down the regime and support the people's revolution for freedom and dignity," said a communique issued by 300 delegates at the conclusion of the two-day meeting, which brought together various opposition groups, activists and
independent figures, some from inside Syria.

The opposition also decided to establish a 31-member council to act as an international representative for protesters in Syria, reported Mohamed Vall, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Antalya.

Abrahim Miro, a Syrian activist of Kurdish ethnicity who was at the conference, said the committee "is represented by all the factions, all different ethnic groups and all different religions", adding that "it must show the world that they can make a strong voice to support the revolution inside Syria".

"They have to show the world that they are capable of being the face of this revolution in Syria," he told Al Jazeera.

The communique issued by the conference attendees also opposed any foreign intervention in Syria from outside powers, such as has been seen in Libya.

About 50 Assad supporters demonstrated outside the conference venue on Thursday, brandishing posters of the Syrian president and branding the opposition as being "on the payroll of the United States and Israel".

'National dialogue'

President Assad has recently launched a "national dialogue", pledging to free hundreds of political prisoners and promising to investigate the killing of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb in an attempt to blunt growing anger.

State television said Assad had set up a committee and charged it with "formulating general principles of dialogue that will open the way for the creation of an appropriate climate in which the different elements can express themselves and present their proposals".

The opposition has previously dismissed calls for dialogue, saying that this can take place only once the violence ends, political prisoners are freed and reforms adopted.

The demand that prisoners be freed was partially met on Wednesday when, according to a rights activist, hundreds of detainees were released from prisons across the country under an amnesty declared by Assad on Tuesday.

Washington, which has been increasing pressure by slapping sanctions on key regime members, said the release of "100 or so political prisoners does not go far enough".

"The release of some political prisoners is not the release of all political prisoners. We need to see all political prisoners released," Mark Toner, the US state department deputy spokesman, told reporters.

Amnesty exclusions

Human rights organisations have echoed this sentiment.


Al Jazeera's Mohamed Vall reports from Antalya

"Hundreds of people have been released," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

"Fifty of them are from Baniyas, including the 76-year-old poet Ali Derbak," he added, but "thousands of political prisoners remain in jail and are to be released at any time".

"Leaders of the communist Labour Party were unable to benefit from the amnesty as the decree excluded people convicted of joining an organisation to change the social and economic status of the state," Rahman said.

More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and at least 10,000 arrested since protests against Assad's autocratic government erupted in mid-March, Human Rights Watch said.

Speakers at the Turkey conference said Assad's amnesty offer did not go far enough and came too late. "We demanded this amnesty several years ago," Abdel Razak Eid, an activist from the Damascus Declaration, a reformist group launched in 2005 to demand democratic change, said. "But it's late in coming."

A mobile video by one of the delegates showed the delegates vowing not to end dialogue until Syria's people were free.

Assad's legitimacy 'nearly out'

Other international responses to the presidential decree were tepid at best, though US secretary of state Hillary Clinton did say on Thursday that her country believed that Assad's legitimacy has "nearly run out".

Clinton also indicated that there was a lack of international consensus on how to move forward in order to appear on "the right side of history".

Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, has demanded "more ambitious and bolder" action from Syria. "I fear that it might already be too late," he told France Culture radio.

Turkey, while not dismissing the decree outright, also asked for deeper change.

Meanwhile in Syria, residents called for nationwide protests to take place on Friday, to commemorate the nearly 30 children killed during the uprising.

Syria has denied that a boy aged 13, whom opposition activists say died under torture, had been abused by security forces, labelling the accusations as lies.

A medical report published by Syrian official media said three bullets killed teenager Hamza al-Khatib and that other apparent wounds on his body were due to decomposition, not security force brutality. 

Coroner Akram al-Shaar indicated that there was a period between the initial inspection and the handover of the corpse which was presided over by a legal commission including the judge. 

"The report closes the door on the lies and allegations and shows the truth," the state-run news agency SANA said.

The activists said the boy had disappeared since taking part in a demonstration in the southern region of Daraa on April 29, which he decided to join after police killed his cousin.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has said that at least 30 children have been killed by gunfire since the revolt began. The government insists the unrest is the work of "armed terrorist gangs" backed by foreign agitators.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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