Syria: Clinton urges states to cut ties over crackdown

Activists said there were more deaths when Syrian forces opened fire

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged all countries to cut their political and economic ties with Syria.

She said buying oil and gas from Syria and exporting arms there were giving President Bashar al-Assad "comfort in his brutality".

Mrs Clinton's comments came as large anti-government protests continued despite a harsh army crackdown.

Activists said at least 16 people died on Friday as protesters came under fire in towns and cities across the country.

More than 1,700 people have died and tens of thousands have reportedly been arrested since the uprising against the 41-year rule of Mr Assad's family began in March.

Correspondents say there is little the US can do to directly pressure the Syrian regime, with which it has few ties or shared interests.

So Washington has been stepping up the pressure on Europe, Russia and China, to use the leverage that they do have, and on Friday Mrs Clinton extended the pressure to all those with ties to Damascus.

"We urge those countries still buying Syrian oil and gas, those countries still sending Assad weapons, those countries whose political and economic support give him comfort in his brutality, to get on the right side of history," she said.

Analysis

Despite all the killings and arrests, protesters are still braving the dangers to keep the uprising alive, even in areas where defiance has been repeatedly suppressed.

Now, they are taking fresh heart from the mounting outside pressure on Mr Assad to stop the violence and relinquish power.

Among others, the Americans are getting increasingly impatient. There is not much they can do themselves to pressure a regime with which they have few ties or shared interests.

There has been no real sign on the ground of a serious response by Mr Assad to all the pressure from the outside world, beyond promises and a few cosmetic gestures. But the mounting outside pressure is certainly reinforcing the belief of the activists that they can do it.

Washington has stopped short of calling for Mr Assad to stand down, instead seeking unity in the international community so Mr Assad cannot say it is only the US or the West that is against him,

But Mrs Clinton reiterated the view that he has "lost the legitimacy to lead and it is clear that Syria would be better off without him".

The US has imposed sanctions against Damascus and has said these could be increased, while calling on other countries to follow.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have all recalled their ambassadors from Damascus while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has described the methods used by the Syrian security forces as "unacceptable".

'Worshippers shot'

Activists say thousands of people took to the streets again on Friday to demand an end to Mr Assad's rule. Protesters came under fire in the central city of Homs, Hama, the capital Damascus, Deir al-Zour in the east and Aleppo and Idlib near Turkey's border.

Syrian state television admitted there had been small demonstrations after Friday prayers, but activists said they were far bigger and more widespread.

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Any doctor who is discovered giving help to the injured is targeted and arrested”

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The highest reported casualties were in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, where a woman and a 16-year-old were named among those who died. Syrian state TV said two security men had been shot dead in the capital.

Thousands of people came out to protest in Deir al-Zour, said activists. Soldiers reportedly fired live ammunition as people left two mosques, sending worshippers running for cover in alleyways.

"Assad wants to finish off the uprising before international pressure becomes too much for him. But people have gone out of almost every major mosque in Deir al-Zor, metres away from tanks that occupy every main square and roundabout," one resident told Reuters news agency.

Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there had been a major army assault with tanks and troop carriers on Kahn Sheikhun, in north-western Idlib province, killing at least one woman.

In Hama, which came under heavy bombardment last week, activists said mosques were surrounded by soldiers and people were being stopped and searched at checkpoints "every 200m".

Witnesses say the number of people being killed has risen during the current fasting month of Ramadan, as opponents of the regime stage protests after evening and early-morning prayers.

Syria President Bashar al-Assad (file image) Bashar al-Assad says his government is cracking down on "armed terrorists"

"We used to have 20 killed every Friday but now this number is being killed almost on a daily basis," one man told the BBC.

Meanwhile, rights groups accuse the regime of targeting hospitals and arresting doctors for treating injured protesters.

"Any doctor who is discovered giving help to the injured is targeted and arrested," one Syrian doctor - who did not want to be named - told the BBC.

There are reports of troops preventing the wounded from reaching hospitals in some areas, and even of removing the bodies of dead protesters from hospitals. Activists say this is to make it harder to calculate the number of people killed in the regime's campaign to quash dissent.

International journalists face severe restrictions to reporting in Syria, and it is hard to verify reports.

Mr Assad has reiterated promises of political reform, while remaining adamant his government would continue to pursue the "terrorist groups" he has blamed for the unrest.

His opponents say the regime's failure to propose any serious reforms has merely entrenched the feeling of protesters.

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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