Tuesday 20 February 2018

Syrian death toll hits 8,000 as Assad widens offensive

Adrian Bloomfield

THE death toll from Syria's 11-month uprising passed 8,000 yesterday as the Assad regime widened its artillery offensive against opposition strongholds even as it claimed to have secured an overwhelming victory in a referendum on a new constitution.

Outraged by the worsening violence, EU foreign ministers agreed new sanctions, freezing the assets of Syria's central bank, banning cargo flights from the country and blacklisting seven of President Bashar al-Assad's closest allies.

But there was little sign of any impact from the latest display of Western indignation as Mr Assad's forces once again shelled the city of Homs.

Opposition activists said that at least 21 people were killed in the besieged district of Bab Amr, which has been devastated by a relentless onslaught for the past 24 days that has left thousands of civilians cowering in basements and struggling to survive on dwindling rations of food and water.

Video footage from the city showed that even during lulls in the shelling, life remained hazardous with snipers taking aim at the few civilians who dared to venture on to the streets.

Four other districts of the city were also targeted, while army units advanced towards nearby Qusayr, another town that is effectively under the control of rebel units loosely operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

There were similar scenes in the northwest, where a fresh offensive saw three towns in Idlib province come under sustained artillery, mortar and anti-aircraft fire. There was no immediate word on casualties.

As the violence raged, Assad's officials did their best to give the impression of returning normality by claiming that the president had received an overwhelming mandate to pursue his reform programme after almost 90pc of voters approved a new constitution in a referendum held on Sunday.

The constitution ostensibly enshrines democratic rule and prepares the way for multi-party elections, although critics point out that it would also allow Assad to remain in office for another 16 years.

Opposition groups called a boycott of the vote, although Mohammed al-Shaar, the interior minister, claimed a turnout of 57.4pc. With no independent observers monitoring the exercise, such figures will be questioned even though Assad does continue to enjoy support from significant amounts of his people, particularly those of ethnic minorities. Western politicians have dismissed the referendum as a sham.

"Yesterday's referendum has fooled nobody," William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, said in Brussels. "To open polling stations but continue to open fire on the civilians of the country has no credibility in the eyes of the world."

With opposition groups putting the death toll of the uprising at between 8,036 and 8,638, Sunni Arab countries have stepped up their pressure for a more robust international response to the crisis.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies have taken a tougher line with Syria in the hope, according to observers, of dealing a blow to Shia Iran, Assad's oldest and closest regional ally. Taking matters a step further, Awad al-Qarni, an influential Saudi cleric, publicly called for the Syrian president to be killed. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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