Middle East

Syria unrest: UN to send humanitarian mission

A still allegedly showing a Syrian soldier walking near a tank in Syria's city of Hama. Photo: August 2011
Image caption More than 2,000 people have reportedly been killed in Syria since the unrest began in March

The UN is to send a humanitarian mission to Syria on Saturday to assess the situation there after Damascus' violent crackdown on protesters.

The UN humanitarian chief said Damascus had pledged the mission "will have full access to where we want to go".

Earlier, the US and several major EU nations urged Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Syria has repeated that army operations against protesters have ended, a claim not independently verified.

Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said it was "already a fact on the ground, the military and police operations stopped in Syria".

President Assad had said the same in a phone call with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Mr Ja'afari also accused the US of waging a "diplomatic and humanitarian war" against Syria together with some other UN Security Council members.

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Media captionSyria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari: "Illegitimate strategies against my own country"

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

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

On Thursday, UN Humanitarian Affairs chief Valerie Amos said that the UN mission would begin its visit to Syria on Saturday.

"We have been guaranteed that we will have full access," she said.

Ms Amos added that the team - organised by the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) - would "want to concentrate on those places where there have been reports of fighting".

The agreement with the Syrian government comes after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke to President Assad by telephone on Wednesday, the UN said.

A UN spokesman said the Syrian leader pledged "that the (UN) team would have access to different sites in Syria".

The UN had earlier unsuccessfully tried for several weeks to get humanitarian observers to Syria.

In a separate development, UN investigators said on Thursday that the use of violence in Syria "may amount to crimes against humanity".

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council, the investigators said the UN Security Council should refer the issue to the International Criminal Court.

'Get out of the way'

Earlier on Thursday, the leaders of the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU all called for President Assad to resign.

In a written statement, Mr Obama said: "The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.

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Media captionHillary Clinton: "The transition to democracy in Syria has begun"

He added: "We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

The US had already tightened its sanctions against members of Syria's government but had stopped short of demanding Mr Assad step down.

At the same time, the EU and the leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued statements also calling on President Assad to leave.

A Syrian government spokesman accused Western governments of increasing the tension in the country.

"It is strange that instead of offering [Damascus] a helping hand to implement its programme of reforms, the West and Obama are seeking to stoke more violence in Syria," Reem Haddad, of the information ministry, told AFP news agency.

'Systematic attacks'

The calls for Mr Assad to step down follow a report from UN investigators into the recent violence in Syria.

Their 22-page report says that security forces, including snipers, have used deadly force against civilians in attempts to quell months of anti-government protests.

News agencies said the investigators discovered that 26 men were blindfolded and shot dead while in government custody.

In other cases, security forces allegedly killed wounded civilians by putting them alive in refrigerators in hospital morgues, Reuters news agency said.

The UN's investigators were not allowed into Syria. They interviewed victims and witnesses of the violence, some in Syria, and others in the region.

"The mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity," the UN investigators said.

The report, released in Geneva, urged the UN Security Council to "consider referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court".

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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