Middle East

Violence in Syria swells as Biden urges Assad to go

US Vice President Joe Biden
Image caption Joe Biden believes President Assad should step down

At least 23 people have been killed in Syria as violence between army defectors and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad swells, activists said.

The UN estimates 4,000 people have been killed during a crackdown on anti-government protests.

The Arab League gave Syria until Sunday to sign its initiative to end violence.

The continued unrest came as the US Vice President Joe Biden warned that events in Syria threatened to fan the flames of sectarian conflict.

Speaking in Istanbul, he described the situation in Syria as a "brutal repression".

"We stand with Turkey and a growing chorus of nations in calling for President Assad to step aside," he said.

He said he welcomed the UN Human Rights Council's condemnation of the violence, which Syrian authorities blame on armed gangs and foreign meddling.

'Systematic violations'

Earlier this week, in what the UK ambassador said was the toughest resolution ever passed, the council strongly condemned the "gross and systematic" violations by Syrian forces.

The resolution demands the suspension of security forces suspected of violations and the release of prisoners of conscience.

Image caption A soldier takes aim in the city of Homs in an image supplied by Ugarit news agency

The Council also said it was appointing a special investigator to report to the UN secretary general on the crackdown.

After a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Doha, Qatar's foreign minister said there had been some contact with the Syrians.

"If they want to come [and sign] tomorrow they can," Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said.

The ministers also confirmed sanctions on Syria, freezing assets for 19 top officials and associates of President Assad's administration and banning them from travelling to Arab countries, a statement said.

Until recently, most of the bloodshed in Syria was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protesters, but there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting government forces.

In one of the bloodiest incidents early on Saturday, seven members of the security forces, five army rebels and three civilians were killed in a night-time battle in Idlib, near the Turkish border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In the province's town of Maarat Numan a funeral held for a 26-year-old man turned into a massive protest against the regime, the British-based Observatory said.

Deadly month

It is impossible to verify reports of deaths as the Syrian government has severely restricted access for foreign journalists.

The Observatory also reported that two protesters had been killed and nine others wounded when security forces opened fire on an anti-regime rally in the town of Ariha.

Five civilians were shot dead by security forces in central Homs province, the group said, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, state news agency Sana reported that Syrian security forces had clashed with armed "terrorists", exploded roadside bombs and defused explosive devices in a series of operations.

The agency reports that special forces also captured 14 gunmen who, the agency said, had been killing and kidnapping civilians and soldiers.

It also said that special forces had caught dozens of wanted men in the area of Tel Kalakh who had been smuggling weapons, drugs and armed men from Lebanon into Syria.

November has been the deadliest month for the uprising which began in March, with at least 950 people killed in gunbattles, raids and other violence, according to activist groups.