Syrian army pounds rebels, new move at U.N. (REUTERS) By Khaled Yacoub Oweis AMMAN 02/28/12 10:55am EST)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Syrian forces shelled opposition strongholds, killing at
least 25 people, on Tuesday and a wounded British photographer was
smuggled out of Homs into neighboring Lebanon.
France said the U.N. Security Council was starting work on a draft
resolution on the violence in Syria and the need to gain humanitarian
access to Homs and other embattled areas.
"We hope Russia and China will not oppose the proposed resolution,"
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. "Given the
emergency, it´s time that all the council members, without exception,
put a stop to this barbarity."
Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution a month ago that would
have demanded an end to the bloodshed and backed an Arab League call
for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Activists said Assad sent units of an elite armored division, which
is led by his brother Maher, into Homs overnight. Tanks with the
words "Fourth Division Monsters" painted on them moved close to the
besieged Baba Amro district.
British photographer Paul Conroy, of London´s Sunday Times, was
spirited safely out of Homs into Lebanon. "He is in good shape and in
good spirits," the newspaper said.
Conroy had been among several foreign journalists trapped in Baba
Amro, where Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent also with the
Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in a
bombardment on February 22.
Some Syrian activists said Edith Bouvier, a freelance reporter
working for French daily Le Figaro, who has a broken leg, had also
escaped. But there was no immediate confirmation.
Valero, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman, said he could not
confirm or deny the report. "We ask people to be extremely cautious
with this kind of information," he added.
An activist with the campaign group Avaaz, which said it had arranged
Conroy´s escape, said Bouvier and two other Western journalists were
believed to be still in Homs.
PROTEST TOWN UNDER FIRE
In Hama province, security forces bombarded the town of Helfaya, a
centre of protests in the uprising against Assad.
Activists said the 20 deaths of Sunni Muslim villagers there were
among at least 100 killed in the province in the last two weeks in
revenge for rebel Free Syrian Army attacks on security forces
commanded by members of Assad´s minority Alawite sect.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities
tightly restrict media access to the country.
Opposition groups say hundreds of civilians have been killed or
wounded in the siege of Baba Amro and other rebellious districts in
Homs, where terrified residents are enduring dire conditions, without
proper supplies of water, food and medicine.
The Syrian military´s latest bombardment of Baba Amro was the
heaviest in a 24-day-old assault, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least five people
were killed in Baba Amro on Tuesday, a day after 84 were killed in
Homs, out of an overall death toll of 122 civilians across Syria. The
British-based group said 29 security force members had been killed in
clashes with rebels on Monday.
Assad, projecting an aura of normality in a land ravaged by 11 months
of conflict over his right to power, decreed that a new constitution
was in force on Tuesday after officials said nearly 90 percent of
voters had endorsed it in a referendum.
Opposition groups and Western leaders seeking Assad´s removal
denounced Sunday´s vote as a charade that diverted attention from the
violence in Homs and elsewhere.
In Geneva, the United Nations´ main human rights body was set to
condemn Syria for "brutal" use of heavy weapons on residential areas
and persecuting opponents, its fourth such rebuke to Assad since the
uprising began last March.
Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had requested the debate at
the U.N. Human Rights Council, with Western backing.
An Arab diplomat said the 47-member forum, which has moral authority
but no legal force, would back a resolution condemning
Syria´s "continued widespread and systematic violations," but that
Russia, Cuba, Ecuador and possibly China might oppose it.
Of moves at the more powerful U.N. Security Council in New York,
diplomats have indicated that Western powers may seek a compromise
resolution focused on humanitarian relief that could avoid a new veto
from Assad´s allies in Moscow, or from Beijing.
SYRIAN ENVOY WALKS OUT
Syria´s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, stormed out
of the session after calling on countries to stop "inciting
sectarianism and providing arms" to Syrian rebels.
He said foreign sanctions were preventing Damascus from buying
medicines and fuel. The European Union imposed additional punitive
measures on Tuesday.
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.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the U.N. body on Monday it
was time to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and
warned Assad he would face justice.
Foreign powers have argued over whether to arm Syrian rebels trying
to resist Assad´s forces, but there is little appetite in the West
for any Libya-style military intervention.
Russia and China have used their vetoes to protect Syria from any
action by the U.N. Security Council. Qatar joined Saudi Arabia on
Monday in advocating arming the Syrian rebels.
Assad says he is battling a foreign conspiracy featuring "armed
terrorist groups" and al Qaeda militants, while pressing ahead with
political reforms toward greater democracy.
His opponents scorn his calls for dialogue as meaningless while
Syrian security forces are violently repressing dissent.
The Syrian leader says the new constitution will lead to multi-party
elections within three months.
The document drops a clause making Syria´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 retroactive, 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.
A spokesman for China´s Foreign Ministry said it hoped the referendum
would "help push forward Syria´s reform process, open political
dialogue, and respond to the reasonable appeals of the Syrian people
for protection of their interests."
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Erika Solomon and Mariam
Karouny in Beirut, Catherine Bremer in Paris, Sui-Lee in Beijing,
Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Peter Griffiths in London and Stephanie
Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair
Macdonald) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 02/28/12)
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