Syria: Aid groups mark year of protest with unity call
- 15 March 2012
- From the section Middle East
A coalition of 200 aid and rights groups has called on Russia and China to support United Nations' attempts to end the violence in Syria.
Their appeal marks one year since the first protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrians had survived the crackdown with "outstanding courage", the group said, but more than 8,000 had died.
The UN says it will send a humanitarian mission to Syria this weekend to assess the situation.
Its representatives will be part of a delegation led by the Syrian government. They will also be accompanied by staff from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
They will visit a number of towns including Homs, Hama and Deraa to gather information and see living conditions for themselves.
In a statement, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos stressed the importance of "unhindered access to identify urgent needs and provide emergency care and basic supplies".
"There is no time to waste," she said.
At the political level, Russia and China have both blocked UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.
They have objected to international action which they say would bring about a forced regime change in Syria.
On Wednesday, the Syrian authorities began shelling the southern city of Deraa - the birthplace of the protests - after retaking Idlib, on the Turkish border in the north-west, earlier this week.
Turkey says it has seen a sharp increase in the flow of refugees across its border in recent days.
"The number of Syrian refugees currently staying in Turkey boomed by 1,000 in a single day and climbed to 14,700 total," foreign ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal told reporters in Ankara, adding that he expected the numbers to continue rising.
Among the latest group was a general who had defected from the army, joining the six already in Turkey, said Mr Unal.
Meanwhile, thousands of people have joined a pro-government rally in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to denounce the "year-old conspiracy" against the regime.
Mr Assad has always insisted his troops are fighting "armed gangs" who are seeking to destabilise Syria.
'End this horror'
In a statement, the 200 aid groups from 27 countries - including Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Civicus and International Federation of Human Rights - called on the Security Council to unite in passing a resolution condemning the Syrian government's use of violence, torture and arbitrary detention against civilians.
"For a full year, the death toll in Syria has escalated to the horrifying total of more than 8,000 dead, including hundreds of children," said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights.
"Isn't it time for the world to unite behind effective steps to stop this now?"
Souher Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said Syrians had "survived with outstanding courage one year of systematic and widespread crimes and bloodshed as the world stood by and watched".
"The international community must unite and help Syrians bring an end to the horror."
They said the international community must give its full support to Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who is acting as the UN and Arab League's envoy to Syria.
Mr Annan visited Syria last week to deliver a proposed peace plan to Mr Assad, and is to brief the UN Security Council on his mission on Friday.
The plan includes demands for an immediate ceasefire by both sides, access for humanitarian aid, and the beginning of political dialogue.
A spokesman said he had received a response from Mr Assad but had questions about it and "and was seeking answers".
Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Maqdisi told the BBC that Mr Assad's response had been positive because he wanted Mr Annan's mission to succeed.
Bahrain added further pressure, announcing on Thursday it was closing its embassy in Damascus and withdrawing all staff from Syria because of deteriorating conditions.
A number of countries, including the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands and Italy have already closed or suspended their embassies.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people, including seven army defectors, were killed on Wednesday as the government began shelling Deraa.
A day before, opposition activists said government forces had taken control of the north-western city of Idlib, after days of clashes with rebel fighters.
Security forces were reportedly carrying out house-to-house searches in the area, which has been a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main armed rebel group.
Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch said there were reports that 114 people had died in the Idlib in the past four days.
Reports are difficult to verify because of tight restrictions on independent media operating in Syria.
The violence comes two weeks after troops backed by tanks entered the shattered Baba Amr district of Homs, which had been under bombardment for almost a month, leaving an estimated 700 people dead.
French foreign minister Alain Juppe insisted that the answer to crisis was not to arm the opposition.
"If we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we will create the conditions for a civil war... and that could become an even bigger catastrophe than we have now," he said.
The first protest in Syria took place on the streets of Damascus, on 15 March 2011, amid the wave of political unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.
A few days later, there were clashes in Deraa, as crowds protested against the arrest and alleged torture of a group of schoolchildren who had written anti-government slogans on a wall.
The army was called into Deraa to restore order by the end of the month, but the unrest had already spread to towns and cities across the country. As the army began firing on civilians, the initial calls for more political freedom escalated into calls for the removal of Mr Assad and his government.