Syria's Assad says military operations 'stopped'

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says activists continue to report deaths and "the repression goes on"

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told UN chief Ban Ki-moon that military operations against protesters have "stopped", a UN spokesman said.

He was responding to a demand from Mr Ban during a phone call that "all military operations and mass arrests must cease immediately," the UN's Farhan Haq said in a statement.

Mr Assad is under international pressure to end his violent crackdown.

Activists say more than 20 people were killed on Wednesday alone.

United Nations investigators say the Syrian government's violence against protesters may amount to crimes against humanity.

In a report, the UN investigators say they have found a pattern of human rights violations that constitute widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population.

Nearly 2,000 people are believed to have been killed and tens of thousands have been arrested since the crackdown began in March.

In the latest assault, Syrian forces fired on parts of the port city of Latakia, killing dozens and driving some 5,000 Palestinian refugees from their camps.

The UN Security Council is due to hold a special session on Syria later on Thursday.

An emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council will be held on Monday following a request from all 24 members - including Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

'Excessive force'

"The secretary general expressed alarm at the latest reports of continued widespread violations of human rights and excessive use of force by Syrian security forces against civilians across Syria," the UN statement said.

Analysis

President Assad's reported announcement to the UN Secretary-General that all military and police operations against civilians have stopped, indicates that he can't totally ignore outside pressures and condemnation.

Perhaps most telling has been the increasingly forceful warnings from influential northern neighbour Turkey that there has to be an immediate and unconditional stop to the violence.

But the much-filmed army withdrawals from Hama, Deir al-Zour and Latakia in themselves make no real difference.

There has so far been no sign that the regime's many other instruments of control are being stood down, such as the numerous unaccountable security outfits and the shabiha militia.

So the track record suggests that the regime's latest moves don't signal a real change of heart, but rather, tactical manoeuvring aimed at riding out the latest wave of pressures while the struggle over the country's future continues.

Mr Ban "emphasized that all military operations and mass arrests must cease immediately. President Assad said that the military and police operations had stopped," it added.

The UN chief called on Damascus to introduce "credible" reforms and offer full co-operation to a UN human rights investigation into the crackdown.

The UN said Mr Assad listed the reforms he planned to take, which included constitutional change and elections, while also agreeing to receive a UN humanitarian mission.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says the Syrian authorities have staged highly-publicised troop withdrawals from three trouble-spots in the past couple of weeks - first the central city of Hama, then Deir al-Zour in the east, and now the Ramel district of Latakia on the western coast.

But troops and tanks were pulled out only after they had done the job of restoring control by force, and there are many other instruments of security left behind to maintain the government's grip, he says.

At this stage in the uprising, our correspondent adds, it is clear that if the regime really were to stand down all its many instruments of control - there are believed to be at least 17 different security organisations - large parts of the country would slide out of its grasp.

President Bashar Assad came to power in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez.

He has responded to the challenge to his power with a combination of force and the promise of reforms, but has been unable to quell the revolt.

Given what has been happening on the ground, neither Mr Assad's critics abroad nor the activists in Syria give much credence to the regime's ability to reform itself from within, our correspondent says.

The unrest began following the toppling of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early this year.

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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