Middle East

Syria unrest: UN condemns violence, urges investigation

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Media captionBBC's Humphrey Hawksley: "The shooting is real, sustained and lethal"

The UN secretary general has condemned Syria for using tanks and live ammunition against protesters.

Calling for an independent investigation into recent killings, Ban Ki-moon said Syrian authorities had an obligation to respect human rights.

UN Security Council members have so far failed to agree a joint statement.

Reports from Syria suggest small anti-government protests are continuing around the country despite a government crackdown.

Hundreds of women have demonstrated in the southern city of Deraa, where the protests began six weeks ago, despite continued gunfire there.

They demanded the end of a government assault on the city.

In the coastal town of Baniyas the authorities did not try to stop a march in which participants expressed their solidarity with the people of Deraa.

Opposition activists say they are hoping for more demonstrations throughout the country after Friday prayers this week.

'Refusal to fire'

About 400 people are said to have been killed over the last six weeks.

According to the government, several soldiers have also been killed in the unrest. Officials say "armed gangs" and Salafists - radical Islamists - have been attacking troops. Opposition leaders deny the claims.

On Wednesday, a human rights activist said he had documented the case of a soldier who was shot by the army for refusing to fire on protesters.

According to family members, the young man had sworn that he would not fire on civilians. His body was returned to his family days after he was deployed to Baniyas, Wissam Tarif, director of the Syrian human rights organisation Insan, told the BBC.

The army blamed Salafists, but mourners at the soldier's funeral "openly accused the security forces of shooting that soldier," said Mr Tarif, who has just returned to the Netherlands from Syria.

There have been claims of soldiers defecting on several online opposition sites, but they have been impossible to verify as foreign journalists are not being allowed into the country.

'Nothing to hide'

The 15-nation UN Security Council is expected to take up the issue of Syria again later on Wednesday.

A draft text - proposed by the UK, France, Germany and Portugal - condemns the deadly violence against Syrian civilians and backs Mr Ban's call for a "transparent" independent investigation into deaths in the protests.

Mr Ban added that he was convinced that only an "inclusive dialogue and genuine reform" could address the Syrian people's legitimate aspirations, and restore peace and social order.

But UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could still change tack.

"It's not too late for him to say he really is going to do those reforms," he told the BBC, adding that killings would also have to be investigated.

Speaking outside the Security Council chambers, the Syrian envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, said the country was perfectly capable of carrying out its own inquiry and had "nothing to hide".

The BBC's Barbara Plett, at the UN headquarters in New York, says that it will be difficult for Security Council members to reach agreement.

Veto-holders China and Russia are especially cautious as they are unhappy about intervention in Libya, she says.

Targeted sanctions

Despite the lifting of an emergency law last week, Syria's security forces have shot dead more than 400 civilians in their campaign to crush the month-long pro-democracy protests, according to Sawasiah, a Syrian human rights organisation.

Along with Amnesty International, it has called on the UN Security Council to start proceedings against Syrian officials in the International Criminal Court.

Western governments are struggling to find levers with which to influence Mr Assad, says BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus. The US already has wide-ranging sanctions against Syria and is now talking about additional targeted financial measures against named individuals.

European pressure may be more significant, adds our correspondent, as it is the Europeans who have been in the vanguard of bringing Syria in from the cold in both diplomatic and economic terms.

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