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Syria opposition demands Arab League action

As death toll grows, protesters call for the nation's membership in the regional bloc to be suspended. Human Rights Watch accuses the government of crimes against humanity.

November 11, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad march through the streets of Homs.
Demonstrators opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad… (Handout, Reuters )

Reporting from Beirut — Demonstrators across Syria demanded Friday that the Arab League take decisive action against the government of President Bashar Assad, opposition activists said, as a rights group accused Damascus of crimes against humanity during its crackdown on dissent.

The opposition reported that government forces killed at least 37 people, half in the central city of Homs, which has become a center of the almost eight-month rebellion against Assad's rule. The casualty numbers could not be independently verified.

Human Rights Watch, the New York based-advocacy group, released a report Friday alleging that the regime had carried out unprovoked attacks against civilians in Homs, killing at least 587 people between mid-April and the end of August. The group alleged "arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and systematic torture in detention."

Protesters nationwide hoisted banners calling for a freeze on Syria's membership in the Arab League, a regional bloc that last week helped broker a Syrian peace plan designed to end the violence. The now-traditional Friday march following Muslim prayers was on this occasion meant to exert pressure on Arab nations to take action against Syria.

The opposition and its international allies say Syria has failed to honor the Arab League-brokered pact, which calls for the withdrawal of armed forces from populated areas, a release of political prisoners and dialogue between parties, among other provisions.

Activists say Syria has instead launched a renewed offensive on Homs, shelling opposition neighborhoods and killing scores of civilians. The government says armed gangs terrorized Homs and set up mines and roadblocks in residential districts as well as attacked police and soldiers.

Human Rights Watch joined regime opponents in calling on the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership and impose an arms embargo and sanctions. Several groups, including Amnesty International, have also called for the introduction of international observers to Homs and other volatile areas, a step Damascus has resisted.

"Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government's brutality," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.

The timing of Human Rights Watch's report was clearly meant to influence Arab League delegates, who were to meet Saturday in Cairo in a bid to revive the faltering peace plan. It was unclear what, if any, action the Arab nations would take against Damascus.

A suspension of Syria's membership in the league would further isolate a nation that has already seen its standing plummet in the Arab world after months of what the United Nations terms a "brutal" crackdown on dissent. Amateur video purporting to show attacks on civilians has become an almost daily feature of Arab-language satellite television.

At least 3,500 people, mostly civilians, have died in the unrest, according to the U.N. Damascus says "terrorists" have killed more than 1,000 security officers.

Syria insists it is complying with the peace plan. It says it has released more than 500 prisoners and enacted an amnesty for gun violators "with no blood on their hands." Opponents call the steps a charade and say Assad is stalling for time and resisting his inevitable ouster.

On Friday, Syria said it would accept a mission from the Arab League "to inspect the reality of the situation."

Damascus maintains that it is battling terrorists armed by "foreign interests" who are seeking to overthrow the government and foster Iraq-style sectarian strife and civil war. The opposition has demanded Assad's ouster and says it is the government that is attempting to inflame sectarian tensions.

The official government news agency on Friday reported that "terrorist groups" killed five people, including two security officers, in the central provinces of Homs and Hama.

State television showed footage Friday of a captured "terrorist" allegedly confessing to having killed protesters in Homs so that the army would be blamed for the deaths. The purpose, the detainee said, was "to put pressure on the Arab League" to take action against Syria.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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