x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Protesters call to suspend Syria's Arab League membership

At least five people have been killed amid demonstrations in Homs.

DAMASCUS // At least five people were killed in Syria on Friday, including three in the restive city of Homs, as Human Rights Watch accused the regime of committing crimes against humanity.

"A civilian and a defected soldier were killed by gunfire this Friday morning in the (Homs) neighbourhood of Al-Bayada," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"A 63-year-old man was killed by sniper fire in Cairo street," the Britain-based watchdog added in a statement received in Nicosia.

The deaths in Homs came amid mass anti-regime rallies demanding the Arab League suspend Syria's membership in the pan-Arab body as punishment for eight-months of violence against civilians.

Security forces broke up demonstrations in Al-Malaab, a main thoroughfare in Homs, but rallies relocated and mushroomed, engulfing eight neighbourhoods, including Al-Bayada, Al-Ghuta and Baba Amr, the Observatory said.

In the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey, "security forces shot dead a man in the town of Ariha," where demonstrations erupted after the traditional Muslim midday prayers.

The Observatory also reported "mass protests" in Idlib's Sheikhun in the wake of a "retreat by security forces from government buildings following violent clashes."

"Security forces unleashed heavy gunfire to disperse demonstrations," in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor.

In Damascus, security forces reinforced the streets of Barzeh and stationed soldiers on the rooftops of buildings, after a wave of arrests and deadly violence shook the capital's neighbourhood.

Further north, security forces deployed in force in the coastal city of Banias and ringed the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq mosque in a bid to prevent protests after the traditional Friday midday Muslim prayers.

But in the southern town of Jassem in Daraa province, birthplace of the opposition movement, protesters poured out of a mosque and spread across neighbourhoods, the Observatory reported.

In a nearby town, Busret al-Sham, "security forces shot dead one person."

Friday prayers have become a lightning rod for demonstrations in Syria, which each week adopt a new theme and this week called for the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership in the regional group.

The league, under international pressure to act after Syria failed to honour a peace plan and instead stepped up its brutal protest crackdown, was to hold talks later on Friday ahead of an extraordinary weekend meeting on the crisis.

Human Rights Watch in a report accused Syrian government forces of "crimes against humanity" based on the systematic nature of abuses against civilians in their eight-month crackdown on dissent.

Like protesters, it urged the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership.

It said protesters were unarmed in most clashes, but that defectors from the security forces intervened when the demonstrators came under fire from regime troops and militiamen.

Based on the accounts of 110 victims and witnesses, Human Rights Watch said "violations by the Syrian security forces killed at least 587 civilians" in the central city of Homs and its province between mid-April and the end of August. In their latest assault on the restive city, the forces had killed at least another 104 people since November 2 when the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the Arab League initiative to end the violence.

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

"The Arab League needs to tell President Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage," she said.

According to the United Nations, more than 3,500 people, the majority of them civilians, have now been killed in Syria since protests against Assad began in March.