Syria unrest: UN condemns government crackdown

The BBC's Jim Muir says almost no information is coming from Hama, as unverified footage claims to show tanks on the move in the city

The UN Security Council has condemned the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on protesters.

It is the first clear condemnation issued by the Security Council, which includes longstanding allies of Syria such as Russia.

The statement was adopted over the fears of some members that any action could lead to Libya-style intervention.

It comes as the Syrian army attacks Hama, a centre of opposition protest, with reports of much loss of life.

Dozens of people are believed to have been killed in the action against Hama, with residents saying tanks have shot their way into Assi (Orontes) Square, in the centre of the city of 800,000 people.

Start Quote

The Security Council reaffirms its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria”

End Quote UN Security Council statement

Human rights groups say at least 140 people have been killed in the Syrian unrest since Sunday, mainly in Hama, adding to a civilian death toll believed to be more than 1,600 since March.

Protesters have vowed to rally every evening during the holy month of Ramadan, after nightly prayers.

Late on Wednesday, there were reports of large demonstrations in several Syrian cities.

Activists told AFP news agency that 50,000 people demonstrated in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, 20,000 in Duma, north of Damascus, and 40,000 in Homs.

At least four people were killed when troops fired on protesters in Damascus, near the southern city of Deraa, and in the central town of Palmyra.

On Thursday, Syria's Sana news agency said that President Bashar al-Assad had issued a decree authorising a multi-party system, apparently ending decades of monopoly on power by the Baath party.

'Brutally shocking'

In Wednesday's statement, the council said it "condemns the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities".

It says those responsible for the violence should be held accountable.

European members of the 15-nation council had pushed for a strong resolution condemning the Syrian government and calling for a rights inquiry.

UN Security Council President Hardeep Singh Puri read the statement condemning the violence in Syria

The BBC's correspondent at the UN in New York, Barbara Plett, says the statement is weaker than what the European states wanted, but stronger than might have been expected given the opposition from some members to saying anything on Syria.

The statement stressed that the only solution to the crisis was a Syrian-led political process, in effect ruling out outside intervention, says our UN correspondent.

It also 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."

Observers say the phrase is a concession to Russia and other governments that said they wanted a balanced statement that placed some blame with both sides.

Syria's neighbour, Lebanon, while not blocking the statement, disassociated itself from the text after it was adopted - a procedure last used decades ago.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the statement represented "the clear message of the international community" to Mr Assad.

"The world has watched the deteriorating situation in Syria with the most profound concern. But the events of the past few days have been brutally shocking," Mr Ban said.

"Just continuing like this is not sustainable. He cannot and they cannot carry on like this, killing their people."

The BBC's Jim Muir, who is following Syrian events from Lebanon, says there was no recognition or acknowledgement of the statement from state TV or the state news agency.

But the UN move will give heart to protesters, as would any gesture of solidarity or support, our correspondent says.

'Massacre'

Anti-government protests began in March, inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and soon spread to many cities across the country.

Mr Assad has promised reforms, and on Thursday reportedly issued a decree allowing multiple parties, one of the main demands of the protest movement.

Unverified amateur footage purportedly shows newly-dug graves in Syria

The government adopted a draft law to this effect on 24 July, but the decree gives it immediate effect.

The Baath party has enjoyed a monopoly on power in a one-party system since 1963.

Mr Assad blames the current violence on "armed criminal gangs" backed by unspecified foreign powers.

Access to events in Syria has been severely restricted for international journalists and it is rarely possible to verify accounts by witnesses and opposition activists.

Activists and residents of Hama said tanks pushed in to the city centre on Wednesday morning, reaching Assi Square.

One resident of the city told the BBC's Damascus correspondent, Lina Sinjab, that he believed a massacre was taking place. He said he had seen piles of bodies in different parts of the city.

There are reports that families trying to flee the city have been shot at to force them to turn back.

Some families who have managed to leave have described the situation as worse than the 1980s, when the late President Hafez Assad, father of the current leader, crushed an uprising, leaving at least 10,000 people dead and the old quarter flattened.

Communication with the city is all but completely cut off, as are water and electricity, correspondents say.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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