x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

As violence surges, Syria calls off visit by Arab League chief

Security forces kill nine in Homs as government postpones visit by Arab League secretary general, who was due to unveil a plan to prompt concessions from Assad.

BEIRUT // A barrage of gunfire by security forces killed at least nine people and wounded several others yesterday in Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Bashar Al Assad's autocratic regime, activists and residents said.

In a step the opposition said shows the regime is intractable, a planned visit by the Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, yesterday was called off at the last minute at the government's request.

Ahmed Ben Heli, the Arab League's deputy secretary general told reporters in Egypt that Mr Elaraby would visit Damascus on Saturday. He said the decision was made in a phone call between the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, and him.

For days, security forces in Homs have been pursuing anti-government protesters in a ferocious crackdown on the challenge to the 40-year Assad dynasty.

The United Nations has said more than 2,200 people have died in six months of protests.

"All through the night, there was shooting. The gunfire didn't stop," a resident of the city said by phone yesterday. "I can't tell exactly what is going on because it's dangerous to go out."

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), an activist network, said security forces simultaneously stormed several districts in the old part of the city, including the Bab Dreib, Bab Houd and the Bayada neighbourhoods. Nine people were confirmed dead in shooting in those areas, the LCC said.

The London-based Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across the country, said 10 people were killed. Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has seen some of the largest anti-regime protests in Syria, despite repeated crackdowns.

On Tuesday, security forces opened fire from a checkpoint in Rastan, just north of Homs, killing two people, including a 15-year-old boy, activists said. They said five unidentified corpses, including that of a woman, were found dumped around the city centre.

Mobile telephones, land lines and internet connections in some parts of Homs were cut off yesterday. Many people were staying home because of roads blocked by security forces. Others were too scared to leave.

The state-run news agency SANA said a "terrorist group" kidnapped two Baath party officials in Rastan yesterday. Authorities last week reported the kidnapping of the attorney general of the central city of Hama, Adnan Bakkour. Two days later, he appeared in a video announcing he had defected from the regime. Activists said he had left Syria. But authorities insist he was being kept against his will by gunmen and said they were searching for him.

Mr Idilbi said there were reports of army defections in Homs yesterday, saying fierce fighting took place between factions of soldiers. There have been credible reports of mostly low-level army defections in the past months, although it was difficult to gauge the extent.

Syria has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and most international observers, insisting that foreigners were meddling. The government's violent crackdown has led to sharp international criticism and sanctions aimed at isolating the regime, including a ban on the import of Syrian oil, a mainstay of the regime.

Arab League officials in Egypt had said Mr Elaraby would have presented a plan under which Mr Al Assad would immediately cease all military operations, release all political prisoners, begin dialogue and announce his intention to form a national unity government and hold presidential elections by the end of his term in 2014.

The LCC said the initiative provided "a good basis that can be built upon" as a way out of the crisis.