Thursday 18 January 2018

Iran piles the pressure on former Syrian allies

Khaled Oweis in AMMAN

SYRIAN forces killed at least three protesters yesterday as tens of thousands of people marched again to demand the removal of President Bashar al-Assad on a major religious occasion, activists and residents said.

Syria's ally Iran said Assad needed to respond to the "legitimate demands of the people" after five months of protests, and Arab League foreign ministers were expected to call on him to stop military operations against protests, a delegate said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), citing witnesses, said more demonstrations had broken out in Damascus yesterday morning than at any time since the pro-democracy uprising erupted in March.

Two of the three were killed as Assad's forces fired live ammunition to disperse demonstrators streaming from mosques in the city of Qusair and Latakia port after al-Qadr prayers, the night Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received the Koran.

At the al-Rifai mosque in the upscale Damascus district of Kfar Sousa, where the main secret police headquarters are located, witnesses said hundreds of security police and militiamen loyal to Assad attacked worshippers who tried to demonstrate as prayers finished around dawn.

"Some of the Mukhabarat secret servicemen went on the roof and began firing from their AK-47s to scare the crowd. Around 10 people were wounded, two hit by bullets in the neck and chest," a cleric who lives in the area said.

SOHR, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman, said Syrian forces fired at a funeral turned protest yesterday in the town of Kfar Roumeh in the northwestern Idlib province bordering Turkey, wounding at least 10.

The organisation said another man was killed in raids and house-to-house arrests in the nearby town of Kfar Nubul.

"Besides the killings, another tragedy in Syria is the tens of thousands of people arrested since the beginning of uprising, many of whose whereabouts are unknown," Abdelrahman said.

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Assad and other leaders needed to respond to their people.

"We believe developments in the region's countries stem from dissatisfaction and discontent of the peoples in those countries," ISNA news agency quoted him as saying.

"The governments must be responsive to the legitimate demands of the people in these countries, be it Syria, Yemen or other countries."

A delegate to the Arab League in Cairo said Arab foreign ministers would step up pressure on Assad with a demand he end the crackdown on demonstrators.

"There has been an agreement in talks held between the Arab states on pressuring the Syrian regime to completely stop the military operations and withdraw its forces," the delegate said, adding ministers would discuss sending a mission to Damascus.

The UN says 2,200 people have been killed since Assad sent in tanks and troops to crush months of street demonstrations calling for an end to his family's 41-year rule.

Syrian authorities have blamed armed "terrorist groups" for the bloodshed and say 500 police and army have been killed. They have expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify events.

The United States and EU have urged Assad to step down but their push at the UN to impose Security Council sanctions on Syria over its crackdown has met resistance from Russia and China, diplomats said. Russia has a naval base in Syria and is one of its main arms suppliers.

Proposed sanctions include an arms embargo and freezing the assets of Assad and his associates.

Sunday Independent

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