Middle East

Syria unrest: Turkey presses Assad to end crackdown

Bashar al-Assad meets Ahmet Davutoglu in Damascus (9 August 2011)
Image caption Ahmet Davutoglu (right) said he hoped for a peaceful transition in Bashar al-Assad's Syria

Syrian security forces have continued operations to crush protesters, even as the visiting Turkish foreign minister pressed President Bashar al-Assad to stop them.

Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu said the pair discussed "concrete steps" for Damascus to halt the killing of civilians.

Mr Assad said he would not relent in pursuing "terrorist groups".

As they met, rights activists said at least 28 more people had been killed, including nine in and around Hama.

More than 1,700 civilians are believed to have been killed and tens of thousands arrested since the uprising began in mid-March.

'Open and clear'

Mr Davutoglu, who has helped improve ties between Ankara and Damascus, had been told by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pass on a "tough" message, demanding an end to the military operations against civilian demonstrators.

Over the weekend, Mr Erdogan said not only that he had "run out of patience", but also that from Turkey's point of view the Syrian crisis was almost an internal problem - their shared border is more than 800km (500 miles) long, says the BBC's Jonathan Head in Istanbul.

Many Turks sympathise with anti-government protesters in Syria and there is burning anger at what is happening, our correspondent says.

Speaking to reporters on his return to Ankara, Mr Davutoglu described the methods used by the Syrian security forces as "unacceptable" and outlined actions that Syria had to take to stop the bloodshed.

"We discussed ways to prevent confrontation between the army and the people, and tensions like those in Hama, in the most open and clear way," he said.

"The coming days will be important to see if the expectations are being met. We hope that internal peace and calm is achieved and steps for reform are taken."

The Turkish government would be monitoring events in Syria, and maintaining contacts with all parts of society, he added.

Mr Davutoglu stressed that he hoped for a peaceful transition in Syria that would result in its people determining their own future.

The official Syrian account of their talks quoted Mr Assad as saying security forces would "not relent in pursuing terrorist groups" to ensure the stability of the nation and the safety of its citizens. The president also insisted he was serious about a proposed reform programme.

The Syrians quoted Mr Davutoglu as saying he was not carrying a message from anyone, and that Syria would be an example to the whole region once Mr Assad's reforms were enacted.

Image caption The army has been deployed to crush dissent in the restive cities of Hama, Homs and Deir al-Zour

Since Saturday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors and demanded an immediate end to the use of military force against civilians.

The Arab League and Gulf Co-operation Council have also issued statements condemning the crackdown and calling for serious dialogue.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr on Tuesday expressed concern that the situation in Syria was "heading to the point of no return".

"Reforms that are soaked in the blood of the martyrs who are dying daily are of no use," state media quoted him as saying.

Envoys from India, Brazil and South Africa are also due in Damascus this week to appeal for an end to the killing of protesters.

Ramadan protests

Efforts to persuade Syria's government to halt the crackdown have had little effect in the past week, during which more than 300 civilians are believed to have been killed, including at least 14 on Monday.

On Tuesday, at least seven people were killed when troops backed by tanks and armoured vehicles overran towns and villages outside the restive central city of Hama, including Soran, Halfaya and Taybat al-Imam, where snipers have been deployed on roofs.

Two sisters aged six and 11 were reportedly among the five dead brought to a hospital in Taybat al-Imam, while the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights told Reuters news agency that at least 26 people had died.

Two people were also killed in the centre of Hama, activists said.

At least three others were killed in the town of Binnish, in Idlib governorate, about 30km (19 miles) from the border with Turkey, in a similar attack.

Asked why Binnish was stormed, a resident who had fled told Reuters: "The whole town has been joining in night rallies after Ramadan prayers."

The army also continued its operation to crush dissent in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, where more than 60 civilians are said to have been killed since Sunday.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist group that organises and documents the protests, said that more than 200 tanks had been deployed in the centre, and that security forces were carrying out raids and detaining residents.

Deaths were also reported in Homs and the Damascus suburb of Irbin.

Access to Syria has been severely restricted for international journalists, and it is rarely possible to verify accounts by witnesses and activists.

Also on Tuesday, former Syrian Defence Minister Gen Ali Habib, who was removed from his post on Monday, denied reports that he was sacked because he was unhappy with the crackdown.

"I affirm that they are fabricated stories that run counter to reality and aim at harming Syria and its national army," he said on state TV.

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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