Syria locks down Hama on anniversary of massacre

City residents spill red paint symbolizing blood to mark 30th anniversary of Hafez Assad's 'Hama Massacre'.

February 2, 2012 15:09
4 minute read.
Smoke rising over Syrian city [file]

Smoke rising in Hama, Syria 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

BEIRUT - Syrian troops closed public squares in Hama on Thursday after residents poured red paint symbolizing blood on the ground to mark the 30th anniversary of the massacre President Bashar Assad's father carried out during an uprising against his rule.

The act of defiance came as Russia warned it would veto any UN resolution on Syria it finds unacceptable, making clear it wanted to prevent Libyan-style intervention over Assad's violent crackdown on 11 months of mass protests and armed insurrection.

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Recent political violence in Syria has killed at least 5,000 people, and activists say Assad's forces have stepped up operations around the country after appearing to crush rebels who brought the fight to the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.

Activists in Hama said fire trucks washed away dye and paint poured on the ground overnight to commemorate the bloodshed of the elder Assad's 1982 assault on the city - center of an Islamist revolt against him - at the cost of over 10,000 lives.

"They want to kill the memory and they do not want us to remember," said an activist in the city, where residents said tanks blocked main squares to prevent demonstrations. "But we will not accept it." The anniversary of the Hama massacre comes as Russia fends off attempts to mobilize the United Nations against Syria.

Moscow, presented with an Arab League-backed draft resolution that Washington and Paris endorse, says that plan - which calls on Assad to hand powers to a deputy - demands any text rule out intervention, warning it will veto an "unacceptable" resolution.

Russia and China, both veto-wielding Security Council members, stand in the way of a Western push for a resolution condemning the Syrian government's crackdown on unrest.

UN Security Council ambassadors met in New York on Wednesday to discuss ways to overcome their disagreements on the wording of the European-Arab draft resolution that Morocco submitted to council members on Friday.

Russia warns against Libyan precendent

The closed-door negotiations ended without a final agreement and will resume on Thursday, Germany's UN mission said. The draft will be updated to reflect Wednesday's discussions, which the mission said were "rather constructive."

A council diplomat at the meeting told Reuters, however, that Russia's envoy Vitaly Churkin reiterated to council members that the expression of full support for the Arab League plan in the current draft was "unacceptable."

He also made clear Moscow could not accept the expression of concern in the draft about arms sales to Syria unless there was a waver for weapons transfers to the Syrian government, the diplomat said.

"It's way too soon in my judgment to know whether ultimately there will be agreement," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told reporters. "It's long past time for this council to take meaningful action," she said.

Despite the Russian comments, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said a "window of hope" had opened, and vowed redoubled efforts to agree a text "in the next few days".

Russia says the West exploited fuzzy wording in a March 2011 UN Security Council resolution on Libya to turn a mandate to protect civilians in the North African country's uprising into a push to remove the government, backed by NATO air strikes, that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

Russia also worries the draft's threat of further measures against Syria may lead to sanctions, which it opposes.

Main sticking will be on military intervention

Western envoys in New York said the main sticking point was likely to be not military intervention, on which they were confident agreement could be reached, but the resolution's support for the Arab League plan demanding Assad give up power. That is seen by Moscow as tantamount to change of government.

The envoys said their biggest challenge would be to reword the draft so that it still endorses the plan but in a way that is weaker than the current version.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters: "Every member of the council has to make a decision: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the Syrian people?... Or are you on the side of a brutal, dictatorial regime?" An activist group said Syrian troops in an armored column fired heavy machine guns on Wednesday at homes outside the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad began, and that army defectors fought troops in the northern Idlib province.

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Syria's state news agency SANA reported the funerals of eight security force personnel killed confronting "terrorist groups", bringing the total of such deaths it has claimed in the past few days to about 80. It said a general was killed on Wednesday.

Syrian insurgents said on Wednesday Assad's forces had extended a military sweep against eastern and northern suburbs of Damascus where they hit rebels hard this week. An activist group said at least 25 people had been killed in that sweep.

In Wadi Barada on the edge of the capital, four people were killed in a tank bombardment on Wednesday to flush out rebel Free Syrian Army units operating near the capital, activists said. SANA said government forces killed 11 "terrorists" and found bomb factories in their raids on the suburbs.

It was not possible to verify the reports as Syria restricts access for independent media.

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