Middle East

Syria protests: 'Deaths in anti-Assad demonstrations'

Syrian security forces have fired on anti-government protesters after Friday prayers, killing at least 40 people across the country, activists say.

Most of the reported deaths were in the southern Deraa province.

Activists said people were also killed in the western city of Homs, where shooting and explosions continued throughout the night.

On Thursday, the US led unprecedented calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Russia rejected the US calls for President Assad to go, saying he should be given more time to enact reforms.

Syria's UN envoy Bashar Ja'afari accused the US of trying to instigate insurrection.

He said the US and other UN Security Council members were "waging a humanitarian and diplomatic war" against Syria.

Meanwhile, the EU is preparing to expand its sanctions against Syria, targeting the oil sector.

"Proposals are now being prepared for an embargo on the import of Syrian crude oil into the European Union," EU foreign affairs chief Baroness Ashton said in a statement.

Five institutions and 15 individuals are to be added to the sanctions blacklist, which imposes travel bans and asset freezes.

There may also be further sanctions against the telecommunications and banking sectors, officials told Reuters.

Most of Syria's oil exports go to Europe.

'Beginnings of victory'

Rights activists said two people were killed in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, while there were more deaths in the suburbs of Damascus.

However, most of the deaths were in three towns in Deraa province, where the protests began in March.

Syrian state media gave a different account, saying gunmen had opened fire on worshippers and security forces, killing at least two policemen.

The conflicting accounts are difficult to verify because the Syrian government has banned foreign journalists from the country.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says according to activists, hostilities continued throughout the night in Homs.

Tanks were said to be converging on several areas, and shooting and explosions could be heard along with military helicopters hovering overhead.

Despite Mr Assad's promises to stop the security forces firing on protesters, activist accounts and internet video postings indicate nothing much has changed, says our correspondent.

President Assad has promised political reforms but has continued to clamp down on the protesters, blaming the unrest on "terrorist groups".

Human rights groups believe that about 2,000 people have been killed and thousands arrested since March as Syria's security forces - using tanks, helicopters, gunships and snipers - try to quell dissent that has broken out in much of the country.

The UN says it has been given permission to send a humanitarian mission to Syria on Saturday, and has been guaranteed full access, following a conversation between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Assad on Wednesday.

The US called for Mr Assad to step down on Thursday and introduced harsh new sanctions, freezing all Syrian government assets under US jurisdiction and prohibiting any US citizen from engaging in transactions with Syria.

The US and European powers have already indicated they will push for new sanctions at the UN, though these may meet resistance from veto-holding permanent members Russia and China.

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