x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian army attack Rastan as opposition meets in Turkey to seek global support

Syrian troops surrounded with tanks and bombarded a town in central Syria yesterday, cutting off its electricity and bombing the water supply as well as a mosque and a sports complex.

BEIRUT // Syrian troops bombarded a protesting town with artillery and gunfire yesterday, renewing attacks in an area that has been largely cut off from outside contact for six days.

At least 15 people died in the town of Rastan, bringing the total killed there to 72 since the onslaught began, activists said.

What started as street demonstrations calling for reforms evolved into demands for president Bashar al Assad's removal in the face of the crackdown, especially in Syria's south and centre, where the challenge to his family's 40-year-rule is seen as strongest.

Activists say more than 1,100 people have died during the repression and 10,000 have been detained. But it has not slowed the protests, which take place nearly daily and swell into the thousands each Friday.

A resident of Rastan, a protest stronghold in central Syria, said the town's electricity was cut and it was surrounded by tanks. He said that troops bombed the water supply as well as a mosque and the sports complex.

"We have become refugees in our own country," said the man reached by telephone, who fled his home in the town to escape arrest and was sleeping in the woods.

"My family and sisters are still there, and I don't know how they are doing," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He said that army units entered some neighbourhoods on Wednesday evening and were making arrests.

Members of Syria's fragmented opposition met in Turkey yesterday where they called on Mr Assad to step down and vowed to work together to lobby world leaders for a UN Security Council decision calling for his trial.

Mr Assad's government has shown no signs of relenting and got a strong signal of support yesterday from Russia, a close ally. In Washington, the secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to have Russia, China and some Arab countries in mind as she said nations slow to denounce the Syrian crackdown should get on what she called "the right side of history".

The Syrian government on Wednesday freed hundreds of political prisoners in an amnesty and the president set up a committee for national dialogue in an effort to end the 10-week uprising, but concessions have been coupled with deadly attacks on the towns seen as the greatest threat to his power.

Such concessions would have been unimaginable only months ago, but protesters have already rejected the amnesty as too little, too late.

"The one who needs the amnesty is the killer," said Molham Aldrobi, a representative of Syria's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood who attended the conference in Antalya, Turkey.

The Local Coordination Committees, which help organise and document Syria's protests, said a four-year-old girl was among the most recent deaths in the town of Rastan, where a total of 58 have been killed in the past three days. The nearby towns of Talbiseh and Teir Maaleh, which like Rastan have seen persistent protests, have also come under attack.

There were no reports of protests yesterday in Homs, but the Syrian opposition called for nationwide demonstrations today, the Muslim day of prayer, to commemorate the nearly 30 children killed in the uprising.

The images of children, who activists say were killed during government attacks, have been circulating widely among Syrians on YouTube, Facebook and opposition websites, shocking the public and stoking even more fury against a regime the opposition says has lost all legitimacy.

Syria's state-run Tishrin daily criticised the meeting in Turkey, saying those who are participating in the conference only have one thing in common which is "dependence on foreign countries to interfere in Syria's internal affairs, destabilise it and undermine its security".

The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also issued a warning to protesters, saying that attempts to change Mr al Assad's regime by force will have "catastrophic consequences".