Activists say 8 killed in Syria as Arab League fears civil war

A protester holds up a placard and poster as protesters demonstrate against the continued violence in Syria outside Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum Nov. 23, 2011. The placard (C) reads as “Bashar’s reforms!” and the poster (top)reads as “Syria. Revolution of freedom and dignity”.

AMMAN (Reuters) — Protests against President Bashar Assad erupted in several Syrian cities on Friday, activists said, and the Arab League chief said he feared the unrest could degenerate into a civil war.

Security forces killed a demonstrator in the northwestern town of Idlib and a 17-year-old youth in the central city of Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that five people had been wounded when security forces fired on demonstrators in the town of Kafr Shams, outside Damascus.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, put the death toll at eight, including two in Homs and two in Hama.

Protests also flared after Friday prayers in some areas of the capital Damascus, as well as the port city of Latakia. “The people want the downfall of the regime!” people chanted near a Latakia mosque, one activist said.

Syrians determined to end four decades of Assad family rule have kept up protests since March despite a fierce crackdown by military and security forces that the United Nations says has cost more than 5,000 lives.

Some, including army deserters, have taken up arms in recent months. Syrian authorities say foreign-backed “terrorists” have killed 2,000 soldiers and police since the revolt began.

Armed clashes, now punctuating what began as a non-violent protest movement, have raised fears of a full-scale conflict in Syria, a Sunni Muslim-majority country which also has Alawite, Druze, Christian and Kurdish minorities.

“Yes, I fear a civil war and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war,” said Nabil Elaraby, head of the Arab League, which deployed monitors on Dec. 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan.

“Any problems in Syria will have consequences for the neighboring states,” he told Egypt’s Al-Hayat television.

Syria, which borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, is at the heart of the conflict-prone Middle East, where its closest allies are Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Long struggle

The most senior Syrian officer to defect to the opposition told Reuters that desertions were wearing down the army, but that rebels could take more than a year to topple Assad.

General Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheikh said that up to 20,000 soldiers, mostly Sunnis, had left despite “iron controls”, although most were more focused on evading capture by the secret police than on fighting the security forces.

He said the revolt would take longer than those that toppled leaders in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia because Assad retains the loyalty of elite forces from his minority Alawite sect.

Video footage posted on the Internet on Friday showed the burning hulk of an armored personnel carrier on a street in Homs, a hotbed of protests and armed resistance to Assad. A voice on the clip said the Free Syrian Army mounted the attack.

France called for an independent investigation into the death of a French television journalist killed in a mortar attack in Homs this week while reporting on unrest there.

Gilles Jacquier, of France 2 television, was among nine people killed on Wednesday in Homs in what Syria’s state news agency said was a mortar attack by “terrorists”.

“We want an independent and transparent inquiry into the circumstances…,” Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Romain Nadal told a news conference. Jacquier was the first Western reporter killed in Syria in 10 months of turbulence.

The British-based Observatory said at least 21 people were killed on Thursday, including seven in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and seven security force members in Maarat al-Noman.

Syrian opposition groups, and at least one disgruntled monitor, say the Arab League monitoring mission has only bought Assad more time. Arab foreign ministers are to due to hear a report from the monitors on Jan. 19 and decide what to do next.

Elaraby said the bloodshed had abated somewhat since the observers arrived. That contradicts the view of a senior UN official said to have told the Security Council this week that the rate of killings had accelerated to about 40 a day.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, starting a visit to neighboring Lebanon, told a Beirut daily he had repeatedly urged Syria to halt killings that have turned unrest against Assad into one of the bloodiest of Arab uprisings.

“The Syrian authorities must respond to the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people,” he told an-Nahar, adding that the Security Council, so far divided over Syria, should find a way to speak with one voice on the issue.

China and Russia, a longstanding ally of Damascus, have blocked any firm Security Council action against Syria.

A Russian-operated ship carrying ammunition docked in Syria this week, after it had been temporarily halted during a refueling stop in Cyprus, a Cypriot official said.

The ship had given Cyprus written assurances that its destination would not be Syria. “It had bullets. There were four containers on board,” a Cypriot official told Reuters.

( / 13.01.2012)

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