At least four killed following Ramadan prayers in Syria

Deaths in southern Syria, Damascus suburb come as troops kill an estimated 200 in Hama.

August 5, 2011 09:29
Syrian tanks (illustrative).

Syrian soldiers leaving Deraa 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Armed forces shot dead four people Thursday near Damascus and in southern Syria after nightly Ramadan prayers, activists said, as the United States sharpened criticism of the Bashar Assad regime's fierce crackdown against anti-government protesters.

Three protesters were killed and at least ten wounded in the town of Nawa near Deraa, cradle of the five-month uprising against 41 years of Assad family rule, according to Abdullah Abazeid of the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Committees.

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The Local Coordination Committees, another activist organization, said one more person was killed in the Damascus suburb of Qadam when four buses full of security police surrounded a demonstration there and fired at the crowd.

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The reports come amid an ongoing military siege of the central city of Hama in which activists say some 200 people have been killed in recent days. The city - where in 1982 Assad's father Hafez waged a ruthless counter-insurrection against the Muslim Brotherhood that killed tens of thousands - has been virtually snuffed out, with water and electricity cut off and residents unable to connect with the outside world.

Borzou Daragahi, a Middle East correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, wrote on Twitter that “they’re hiding something ugly in Hama.” You “don’t cut off phones, internet, power, water, roads to plant roses,” he wrote.

Daraghi tweeted that one of the newspaper's stringers spoke to a witness in the city who said that he saw “bodies lying on the roads” and “people trapped in homes.”

One witness said by satellite phone Thursday that more than 100 people had been killed in the past 24 hours. 

A witness reached by the Associated Press said: “People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street ... I saw with my own eyes one young boy on a motorcycle who was carrying vegetables being run over by a tank.” He said families were burying their dead in home gardens or roadsides instead of risking a trip to a cemetery.

Activists estimated the death count at more than 200 since tanks began shelling the city over the weekend.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that Washington believes Assad's government is responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in its nearly five-month crackdown on protests.

Clinton repeated that the White House believes Assad has lost legitimacy in Syria, and that the US and its allies are working on strategies to apply more pressure beyond new sanctions announced Thursday. Those sanctions, the fourth so far, included a prominent Syrian businessman and member of parliament whom the US said was a front for the interests of Assad and his brother.

On Tuesday, US envoy to Syria Robert Ford told a Senate confirmation hearing that Assad was consistently using "constant brutality" and "atrocious torture" against unarmed civilians. But experts said it remained unclear whether that stronger rhetoric actually reflects a changed US policy toward Damascus.

"I think Ford was very much in line with administration policy - or at least administration rhetoric," said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, responding to a question from The Jerusalem Post during a media conference call. "And the rhetoric changed because the situation on the ground keeps getting worse and the administration keeps getting hit in the major newspapers, for example the New York Times and Washington Post ... I think the question is whether in addition to the rhetoric changing, the policy will change."

Robert Danin, also a Middle East fellow at the CFR, added, "The administration wanted to give the Assad regime an out, but it didn't comply. So I think the position has changed, and the administration has come to a place where it says 'This regime has no future and there's nothing that can be done with it.' But I think it tried to give the Syrian regime an out, largely because our own tools are very limited ... The only thing the administration hasn't done is actually call for Assad to go, but I don't think that option is so important at this point. What's important now is what we do rather than which word formulation we use."

Danin also referred to the Palestinian Authority's unilateral statehood bid September in the UN, and the potential for Syrian-supported protests on Israel's borders. Palestinians living in Syria marched on Israel's borders in May and June to mark Arab losses in the 1948 and 1967 wars. "It seems the choice to deploy Palestinian refugees to the border actually proved counterproductive and backfired. They did it twice, both on Nakba Day and Naksa Day, and there was a backlash within Syria," he said from Washington. "People were angry, saying, 'Why did you send us to our deaths, unarmed and without protection?' So we've seen the Syrian government back off from that tactic. But with this regime one can't rely on it to act in its own best interests or wisely. I wouldn't expect something similar in September, but this regime could miscalculate and do something really stupid."

Wednesday's UN statement, read out to a council meeting by Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri "condemns widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."

It called for "an immediate end to all violence and urges all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions."

Diplomatic pressure against Assad continues to grow. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France2 television on Thursday, "We are confronted with a repressive regime and we will continue to raise the pressure ... We will no longer remain silent when authoritarian and dictatorial regimes bloodily suppress popular freedom movements."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his Syrian counterpart "needs to urgently carry out reforms, reconcile with the opposition, restore peace and set up a modern state. If he fails to do this, he will face a sad fate."

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