Syria unrest: UN says 2,200 killed in protest crackdown

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the situation in Syria in Geneva August 22 2011 Navi Pillay said the "ongoing violations" needed the UN Human Rights Council's continued attention

More than 2,200 people have been killed since the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters began in March, says the UN high commissioner on human rights.

Navi Pillay said the new toll included 350 deaths reported since the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Later, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was "troubling" that President Bashar al-Assad had not kept his word about halting military operations.

Several people were killed in Homs as crowds welcomed a UN humanitarian team.

On Sunday, Mr Assad insisted that his government was in no danger of falling and warned that any foreign military intervention would backfire.

'Indiscriminate attacks'

Opening an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Ms Pillay said: "The gravity of ongoing violations and brutal attacks against the peaceful protesters in that country demand your continued attention."

She went on: "As of today, over 2,200 people have been killed since mass protests began in mid-March, with more than 350 people reportedly killed across Syria since the beginning of Ramadan."

"The military and security forces continue to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities."

Start Quote

Syria has been subjected to and continues to be subjected to an unprecedented misleading campaign carried by a number of countries”

End Quote Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui Syrian ambassador to the UN

The meeting followed the publication of a report by UN investigators earlier this month which concluded that Syrian security forces were carrying out widespread human rights violations, which could constitute war crimes.

The 47-member council is considering a draft resolution that "deplores the continuing indiscriminate attacks on its population" and seeks an immediate stop to "all acts of violence".

The resolution also stresses the need to "urgently dispatch an independent international commission of inquiry... to investigate violations of international human rights law in Syria since July 2011".

Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Syria's ambassador to the UN, defended his government and dismissed the allegations as "mere lies".

"Syria has been subjected to and continues to be subjected to an unprecedented misleading campaign carried by a number of countries in order to weaken Syria and to change its political position," he said.

He described the language used in the resolution as "hateful" and urged council members not to support it. "The resolution will only cause the crisis to lengthen and will only cause more instability," he said.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says that while human rights council decisions carry moral authority, the UN has no power to enforce them.

Real pressure for regime change would have to come from the UN Security Council where at least one permanent member, Russia, remains opposed, our correspondent adds.

The US ambassador to the UN, Eileen Donahoe, made it clear that the meeting was about more than simply condemning human rights violations.

"The purpose of today's session is to increase the pressure on the Assad regime, to get Assad to step down, and to allow the Syrian people to move forward," she said.

'Attempted whitewash'

Later, the UN secretary general criticised Mr Assad for not keeping a promise that military and police operations against demonstrators had ended.

President Bashar al-Assad: ''The solution in Syria remains a political one''

"It's troubling that he has not kept his words," Mr Ban told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. "I sincerely hope that he heeds... all [the] international community's appeals and calls."

His comments came as activists said three people had been shot dead in the third city of Homs as crowds took to the streets after the visit of a UN team that has been granted access to assess humanitarian needs.

Inspired by the recent events in Libya, thousands gathered at the central Clock Square, chanting: "Gaddafi is gone, it's your turn Bashar."

But it was not before cars full of security personnel and militiamen drew up and opened fire, according to amateur video posted on the internet.

In one, a man can be heard saying: "The security forces are shooting directly onto the demonstrators just after the UN delegation left. Repeated shooting."

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says the UN team may have been only dimly aware of what was going on.

Wherever they have gone since their mission began on Sunday, they have been mobbed by protesters trying to get the voices to the outside world, our correspondent says.

The authorities have tried to give them a sanitised view of the country, but government officials travelling with the delegation have been deeply embarrassed by what one diplomat has called "an attempted whitewash that has turned into a fiasco for the regime", he adds.

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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