x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UN Security Council to discuss Syria as violence spikes

The council holds a closed-door meeting that may lead to a vote next week on a new Western-Arab draft resolution.

Syrian soldiers, who defected to join the Free Syrian Army, take part in a protest near Homs on Thursday.
Syrian soldiers, who defected to join the Free Syrian Army, take part in a protest near Homs on Thursday.

BEIRUT // Two days of violence in Syria killed more than 50 people as regime forces shelled residential buildings, fired on crowds and left bleeding corpses in the streets in a dramatic escalation of violence, activists said yesterday.

Much of the crackdown focused on Homs, where heavy gunfire hammered the city yesterday in a second day of chaos. A day earlier, the city saw an outbreak of sectarian kidnappings and slayings, and pro-regime forces blasted residential buildings with mortars and gunfire, activists said.

Video posted online by activists showed the bodies of five small children, five women of varying ages and a man, all bloodied and piled on beds in what appeared to be an apartment after a building was hit in the city. The video could not be independently verified.

Activists said at least 30 people were killed in Homs on Thursday and another 21 people were killed across the country yesterday.

In an attempt to stop the bloodshed, the UN Security Council was to hold a closed-door meeting yesterday. Diplomats said the meeting may lead to a vote next week on a new Western-Arab draft resolution.

The resolution expresses support for the Arab League's January 22 decision "to facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system".

The draft does not mention sanctions, but calls for the adoption of unspecified "further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States," if Syria does not comply within 15 days.

The draft condemns the "continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities" and demands that the Syrian government immediately stop all human-rights violations.

Russia, which joined China in vetoing a Western draft resolution in October and which has since promoted its own draft, said the Western-Arab version was unacceptable and vowed to block any text calling for the resignation of Bashar Al Assad as president.

Yesterday, heavy gunfire again hammered Homs, which has seen some of the worst violence of the uprising. Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded yesterday at a checkpoint outside Idlib, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The number of casualties was not immediately clear.

A "fierce military campaign" was also under way in Hama yesterday, according to the Observatory and other activists. They said the sound of heavy machine-gun fire and loud explosions reverberated across the area.

Thursday started with a spate of sectarian kidnappings and killings between the city's population of Sunnis and Allawites, a Shiite sect to which Mr Al Assad belongs and which is the backbone of his regime, said Mohammad Saleh, a centrist opposition figure and resident of Homs.

The violence culminated with the evening killing of the family, Mr Saleh said, adding that details of what had happened were not yet clear. The Observatory said eight children along with adults were killed when a building came under mortar and machine gunfire. Some residents spoke of another massacre that took place when regime loyalists stormed the district, slaughtering residents in an apartment.

"It's racial cleansing," said one Sunni resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "They are killing people because of their sect."

Also yesterday, Iran's official IRNA news agency said gunmen in Syria have kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims travelling by road from Turkey to Damascus. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) - a group of army defectors - released a video on its Facebook page claiming responsibility for the kidnapping.

The FSA also claimed yesterday to have captured five Iranian military officers in Homs and urged Tehran to immediately withdraw any additional troops it may have in Syria. In a statement, the FSA said the Iranians "were working under the orders of the intelligence services of the Syrian air force" and had no valid papers to reside or work in Syria.

In Switzerland, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said the "fragmentation within the country" was making it harder for the UN to update its death toll in Syria. She expressed "great concern that the killings are continuing and in my view it's the authorities who are killing civilians, and so it would all stop if an order comes from the top to stop the killings."

International pressure on Damascus to end the bloodshed so far has produced few results.

The Arab League has sent observers to the country, but the mission has been widely criticised for failing to stop the violence.

In Cairo yesterday, dozens of Syrians broke into the Syrian embassy to protest against their government's crackdown. A Syrian diplomat said the group had made it into the embassy's courtyard, destroying parts of the exterior gate to the compound and breaking into administrative offices on the first and second floors.

* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse