'Assad issues general amnesty to political prisoners'

US State Department says rhetoric must be backed up by action; Syrian opposition meets in Antalya to form unified front, Kurds say not invited.

By OREN KESSLER
June 1, 2011 00:31
Assad

Assad 311 reuters. (photo credit: reuters)

 
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Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a general amnesty on Tuesday, state television said, after 10 weeks of protests against his government and a military crackdown that has drawn international condemnation.

The amnesty covers “all members of political movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” the station said.

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The current president’s father, Hafez Assad, sent troops to crush an armed uprising by the Brotherhood in Hama nearly 30 years ago. Membership in the Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the amnesty announcement needs to be backed up by action.

“He has talked reform, but we have seen very little in the way of action,” Toner said. “He needs to take steps – concrete steps, not rhetoric – to address what is going on in the country.

Activists say 10,000 people have been arrested since the protests against Assad broke out in the southern city of Deraa in mid-March, and 1,000 civilians have been killed.

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Western nations have been pushing for the UN Security Council to condemn the violent repression, but veto-wielding council members Russia and China have both expressed reservations over a draft resolution.

“The stability of Syria has a bearing on the stability of the whole region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing.

“The Chinese government supports Syria’s efforts to protect its sovereignty and stability, and we hope that stability and order in Syria will be restored as soon as possible,” she said. “In the current circumstances, we believe that the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution would do no good for the easing of tensions and stability in Syria.”

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, called on Syria on Tuesday to investigate reports of “horrific acts” of violence against children detained during the unrest.

The call came after media outlets reported this week on an online video showing a 13- year-old boy arrested at a protest on April 29, who had apparently been tortured, mutilated and killed before his body was returned to his family.

In a statement, UNICEF said use of live ammunition against demonstrators had reportedly killed at least 30 children – although it could not independently confirm that figure, or the circumstances of their deaths.

The agency said it was “particularly disturbed by the recent video images of children who were arbitrarily detained and suffered torture or ill-treatment during their detention, leading in some cases to their death.  We call on the government to thoroughly investigate these reports and ensure that perpetrators of such horrific acts are identified and brought to justice,” it said.

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The US also deplored the apparent torture and murder of the boy, identified as Hamza Ali al-Khateeb.

“We are aware of that story and it’s indeed horrifying,” Toner said, calling it “another case of the ongoing human rights abuses that we have seen carried out by Syrian forces.

“That case in particular is appalling and we believe that Syria should be held accountable for these and other human rights abuses,” Toner said.

On Tuesday, the Syrian military used heavy machine guns and artillery in renewed attacks on a town in the country’s heartland. Activists said at least five people were killed and many others were wounded, The Associated Press reported.

Gunfire was reportedly heard in Rastan, a few kilometers north of the central city of Homs, and under sustained assault since Sunday.

A day before, residents used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the first major act of armed resistance in two months of revolt. Residents said at least four civilians were killed in the ensuing gun battles.

“They felt that they cannot sit back anymore and pray for God to help them,” a Homs resident told AP.

Opponents of the Assad regime gathered Tuesday on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast in a bid to form a united front against the Assad regime. The meeting in the southwestern city of Antalya – a favorite holiday spot for vacationing Israelis – drew Syrian expatriates, and a few still living in Syria.

Kurdish opposition figures complained that not a single representative of the beleaguered minority group had been invited to attend.

Participants at the Antalya conference plan to form committees to organize protests outside Syrian embassies, represent the opposition in meetings with governments in the West and elsewhere, and publicize the conflict in Syria.

NATO-member Turkey has called repeatedly for an end to the violence, but uses tempered language in dealing with Damascus.

In an interview on Tuesday with Reuters, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed concern over the violence in Syria, but reserved his denunciations for Israel.

“We will continue to work very hard in order to make possible the political transformation in Syria,” Davutoglu said, adding that his government was not involved in planning the Antalya conference and he had only learned of it in the media.

Democratic governments cannot stop their citizens from launching pro-Palestinian flotillas to Gaza, he said, alluding to plans to launch another so-called aid convoy to the Hamas-run territory later this month.

Davutoglu said warnings about a second international-Gaza flotilla should be directed at Israel, which needed to recognize the changing realities in the Middle East.

“Nobody should expect from Turkey and from other [UN] member states to forget that nine civilians were killed last year,” he said of the IDF raid on the Mavi Marmara convoy to Gaza. “What is the result? Do we think that one member state is beyond international law?”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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