x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Assad orders new general amnesty as France calls for UN Security Council intervention in Syria

Assad acknowledges that Syria has reached a 'turning point', but he said dialogue could lead to a new constitution and end nearly five decades of his Baath party's monopoly on power.

Pro-governement demonstrators hold posters of President Bashar Al Assad and wave the Syrian flag during a rally held in Damascus yesterday. Youssef Badawi / EPA
Pro-governement demonstrators hold posters of President Bashar Al Assad and wave the Syrian flag during a rally held in Damascus yesterday. Youssef Badawi / EPA

DAMASCUS // President Bashar Al Assad yesterday ordered a new general amnesty, a day after an offer of "national dialogue" to end Syria's unrest, even as activists said four people were killed in anti-government protests.

Two people were killed in the central city of Homs and another two in the northeastern province of Deir Ezzor, the activists said, quoting residents, as both the pro and anti-Assad camps took to the streets.

On the humanitarian front, the oresident of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, said after talks with Syrian authorities that the ICRC has been granted access to areas and people affected by the unrest.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which took part in a mission organised by the government to Jisr al Shughur, near the border with Turkey, said that villages in the flashpoint area were mostly deserted.

"A UNHCR staff member reported that villages were increasingly empty from around 40 kilometres from Jisr al Shughur," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards. "There was no evidence of people working in the fields."

At the forefront of criticism of the Syrian authorities, France called for UN Security Council intervention.

"The UN Security Council cannot remain silent for much longer," the French prime minister, Francois Fillon, said at a joint news conference in Paris with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

But Mr Putin said: "We believe that interference in the sovereign matters of independent states shows little promise."

Western governments have been circulating a draft Security Council resolution that would condemn Mr Assad's crackdown but Russia has warned it would veto any such move.

Following up on a keynote speech he delivered on Monday, the state news agency Sana said Mr Al Assad had "issued a decree granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before the date of June 20, 2011."

The president had already ordered a general amnesty on May 31 for all political prisoners, including Muslim Brotherhood members. Hundreds of detainees were released, according to human rights groups.

"I sensed that amnesty was not satisfactory so we are going to extend it to include others, without endangering the security of the state," Mr Al Assad said in his televised speech.

Tens of thousands of people, meanwhile, rallied in central Damascus.

Omeyyades Square was turned into a sea of pro-Assad demonstrators, waving Syrian flags and the president's portrait, chanting: "We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar!"

State television said a huge pro-Assad demonstration was also held in Homs, a flashpoint city north of Damascus. "Millions of Syrians" flocked to squares around the country to hail his speech, it said.

In the address, three months into anti-regime protests and a crackdown by security forces that has cost hundreds of lives, Mr Al Assad said a national dialogue could lead to a new constitution but refused to reform Syria under "chaos."

Pro-democracy activists, however, condemned the speech and insisted the "revolution", now in its fourth month, would carry on, while the US State Department called for "action, not words".

Mr Al Assad acknowledged in his speech that Syria had reached a "turning point", but he said dialogue could lead to a new constitution and end nearly five decades of his Baath party's monopoly on power, a key opposition demand.

"We can say that national dialogue is the slogan of the next stage," the president said. "The national dialogue could lead to amendments of the constitution or to a new constitution."

Witnesses and opposition activists said Mr Al Assad's speech was followed by protests in many parts of Syria, including the northern city of Aleppo, the central regions of Homs and Hama, and in Damascus suburbs.

"The protesters condemned the speech, which branded them as saboteurs, extremists," the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

Sixty demonstrators were arrested in Aleppo in 24 hours, said Abdel Rahman, whose group says the violence has so far killed 1,310 civilians and 341 security force members since the protests erupted in mid-March.

Opposition activists said Mr Assad's speech failed to specify concrete steps such as the pullout of troops from besieged cities and only deepened the crisis.