6 killed, tanks near Iraq as Syria faces backlash

Date: 6/14/2011

DAMASCUS (AFP) – Six civilians were killed Tuesday and tanks were deployed near Syria's border with Iraq, activists said as President Bashar al–Assad came under sharp pressure to halt a crackdown on democracy protests.

"Six civilians perished in the past few hours in Ariha," east of Jisr al–Shughur, an activist told AFP in Nicosia, without providing further details.

The latest deaths came after fresh protests erupted in the eastern town of Deir Ezzor, a rights activist said, and troops pursued a scorched earth campaign in northern mountains, sending thousands fleeing into Turkey.

Activists said security forces were continuing their operations and the sweep of the villages near Jisr al–Shughur, the flashpoint northeastern town which the army took by force on Sunday.

Forces stationed in Jisr al–Shugur shot dead a family of four on Monday, London–based rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Violence has claimed the lives of 1,297 civilians and 340 security force members in Syria since the unrest erupted mid–March, according to the latest toll by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released Tuesday.

The United States meanwhile accused Iran of backing Syria's assaults on pro–democracy protesters, and again called on Assad to cease the violence and allow for a political transition or step aside.

"Iran is supporting the Assad regime?s vicious assaults on peaceful protesters and military actions against its own cities," Clinton said, comparing its response to Iran's crackdown on pro–reform protests in 2009.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said earlier: "President Assad needs to engage in political dialogue. A transition needs to take place. If President Assad does not lead that transition then he should step aside."

European powers meanwhile kept campaigning for a draft resolution condemning the crackdown, with one top envoy saying the delay in Security Council action has cost hundreds of lives.

Russia and China strongly oppose UN action against Assad and could veto any resolution.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned Syria's President Assad on Tuesday, urging him to stop the crackdown and launch reforms, Anatolia news agency reported.

Erdogan told him to "refrain from violence and end the unrest" and stressed "it would be useful to draw up a timetable of reforms as soon as possible and urgently implement them," said the agency.

The two leaders have enjoyed close personal ties amid flourishing Turkish–Syrian ties in recent years, but Ankara's insistent calls on Damascus to initiate reforms have gone unheeded so far.

Last week, Erdogan toughened his tone, accusing the Syrian regime of perpetrating an "atrocity" against the demonstrators, as thousands of fleeing Syrians crossed into Turkey to seek refuge from bloodshed.

The prominent Syrian poet Adonis, in an open letter published Tuesday in a Lebanese daily, called on Assad to let Syrians decide their own future.

"It seems your destiny is to sacrifice yourself for the mistakes and to give back voice to the people and let them decide," he wrote in the letter.

The United Nations said more than 10,000 Syrians have fled into neighbouring countries to escape the crackdown.

There are 5,000 people in Lebanon, said UN humanitarian affairs spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker. A Turkish official said Tuesday there are now more than 8,500 Syrians who have crossed into Turkey.

UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos made a new appeal to the Syrian government to let a UN humanitarian team make a proper assessment.

Syria has refused to let UN aid experts visit stricken towns and blocked rights investigators from entering the country.

Refugees arriving in Turkey said fighting had also broken out among Syrian troops on Sunday as soldiers bent on destroying the area were confronted by others trying to defend the townsfolk.

Elements from one tank division had even taken up positions by bridges leading into the town in a bid to defend it, they said.

"The troops are divided," said 35–year–old Abdullah, who fled Jisr al–Shughur on Sunday and sneaked over the border into Turkey to find food.

"Four tanks defected and they began to fire on one another," he said, adding troops had now reached Ziayni, a town just six kilometres (four miles) from the Turkish border.

"They torched all the crops, they slaughtered the goats, the cows," he said.

Those claims could not be confirmed, as Syria has prevented journalists from entering the area.

Syria blames what it says are foreign–backed "armed terrorist gangs" for the unrest, and says troops launched operations in Jisr al–Shughur at the request of residents and after 120 policemen were massacred there.

Rights activists say those being killed are unarmed protesters and deny a massacre in Jisr al–Shughur, saying bloodshed erupted during a mutiny by soldiers who refused to fire on the town's residents.


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