Syria: Latest 'Day of Rage' could be largest yet

Death toll exceeds 500 as violent uprising enters seventh week; IAEA chief Amano confirms facility leveled in 2007 was nuclear site.

Syria massacres protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria massacres protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Gunfire rang out on Thursday in Deraa, residents of the besieged southern town said, after Syrian President Bashar Assad sent tanks into the coastal city of Latakia, in an increasingly violent suppression of an uprising now heading into its seventh week.
With the estimated death toll exceeding 500, protesters have called for another “Day of Rage” after weekly prayers on Friday – one that could prove to be the largest yet.
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Two hundred Ba’ath Party members from southern Syria resigned late on Wednesday after the government sent in tanks to crush resistance in Deraa.
A witness told The Associated Press that six tanks rolled into Latakia on Wednesday night and security forces fired on pro-democracy demonstrators, wounding four.
High-ranking Syrian officials said that should war break out between Israel and Syria’s Hezbollah allies, Assad would not hesitate to use his “strongest cards” in southern Lebanon against the Jewish state, Israel Radio reported.
In the event of renewed hostilities, Syria and Hezbollah would “compete over who could fire missiles first” at Tel Aviv, the station reported, quoting the Kuwaiti daily Al- Rai.
Diplomats and rights activists, however, have told Western news agencies that signs were also emerging of differences within the army, where the majority of troops are Sunnis, but most officers belong to Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
The dearth of foreign journalists in the country makes independently verifying reports almost impossible. Al-Jazeera television said on Thursday it had suspended some operations in Syria, a move which a media watchdog said was the result of restrictions and attacks on Al-Jazeera staff.
Also on Thursday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said for the first time that Syria had tried in the past to secretly build a nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israeli warplanes five years ago.
Syria denies that the bombed building contained any nuclear facilities.
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For over two years, Syria has refused IAEA follow-up access to the remains of a complex that was being built in the Syrian desert when Israel bombed it to rubble in 2007.
“The facility that was... destroyed by Israel was a nuclear reactor under construction,” he said in response to a question from AP, repeating afterward: “It was a reactor under construction.”
As the crackdown persists, pressure – both domestic and external – continues to mount.
“Considering the breakdown of values and emblems that we were instilled with by the party, and which were destroyed at the hand of the security forces... we announce our withdrawal from the party without regret,” the Ba’ath Party members said in their resignation letter, quoted by the Guardian newspaper in London.
Turkey’s intelligence chief met Assad on Thursday as part of a senior delegation sent to Damascus to suggest reforms that could help end the uprising.
“The delegation will share with Syrian officials Turkey’s experiences in the fields of political and economic reforms,” Turkish authorities said ahead of the meeting.
Turkish officials said events in Syria were “very troubling” to Ankara, and that sanctions would not help the situation.
One official told AFP that if Assad’s regime falls, Ankara would be forced to reconsider its close relations with Damascus.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was expected later on Thursday to convene a meeting with ambassadors from the United States and several European countries to show them what Syrian officials are saying is evidence of an organized conspiracy to destabilize the government, Israel Radio reported.
Britain has withdrawn its royal wedding invitation to Syria, with the support of Buckingham Palace, a Foreign Office spokesman said on Thursday.
Britain had summoned Syrian Ambassador Sami Khiyami to the Foreign Office a day earlier to condemn the “unacceptable use of force.” Under intense media pressure, it rescinded the invitation to Friday’s wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, saying the Foreign Office and Buckingham Palace shared the view that it was “not considered appropriate” for the ambassador to attend.
“I find it a bit embarrassing, but I do not consider it as a matter that would jeopardize any ongoing relations and discussions with the British government,” Khiyami told BBC radio.
Australia also called for international sanctions, and said the United Nations should send a special envoy to investigate events there.
“We believe the time has come for the international community now to consider the use of sanctions against the Syrian regime,” Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said after a meeting at the Commonwealth headquarters in London.
In Deraa, a Syrian mother of six who opened the door to a secret policeman, just had time to scream: “Israelis are more merciful than you!” before he shot her dead, relatives told Reuters on Thursday.
A resident of Homs took a different view.
“They have emptied pharmacy shelves so that people do not find anything to treat their wounded. They are lions against us, but lambs towards the Israelis,” he said, as gunfire crackled nearby.
Reuters contributed to this report.