Fresh Syria demos called as pressure piles on Assad
Syrian anti-regime activists called for fresh protests following the weekly Muslim prayers Friday, piling pressure on President Bashar al-Assad after Western leaders demanded he step down.
The protests, which weekly draw tens of thousands onto Syria's streets calling for the fall of Assad's regime, will test the president's commitment that his security forces have ended operations against civilians.
Only hours after Assad gave this commitment to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, his security forces Thursday night opened fire to disperse an anti-regime protest in the central city of Homs, killing at least one person and wounding another, according to an activist on the scene.
The Britain-based-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday that during the night another man died of injuries he received in the clash, while gunfire was heard early morning in the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs.
The group also said three armoured troop carriers were seen at the Deir al-Mokhless roundabout in Homs and another was deployed at the Bab al-Sebaa neighbourhood.
Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the drivers of the protests, said Friday's rallies will be held under the slogan, "Friday of the beginnings of victory."
The civilian death toll from the security force crackdown on the protests has now passed 2,000, UN under secretary general B. Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council on Thursday.
Frustrated that international calls for a halt to the bloodletting were being snubbed by Damascus, US President Barack Obama on Thursday called for Assad to quit and slapped harsh new sanctions on Syria, freezing state assets and blacklisting the oil and gas sector.
The White House later expressed hope that the European Union would follow suit, conscious that the United States has only limited leverage over Damascus compared to the Europeans, whose oil purchases help to bolster the regime.
It was the first explicit US call for Assad to resign since the pro-democracy uprising -- inspired by the revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia -- erupted on March 15.
"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," Obama said.
His call was quickly echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people," the trio said in a joint statement.
Spain said Friday it is backing Britain, France, Germany and Portugal, who are preparing a sanctions resolution against Assad's government.
"Spain joins these calls," Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez told Spanish radio Cadena Ser.
Russia meanwhile said it opposes calls for Assad to step down.
"We do not support such calls and believe that it is now that President Assad's regime needs to be given time to implement all the reform processes which have been announced," the Interfax news agency said Friday, citing a foreign ministry source.
The United Nations said a humanitarian mission would go to Syria this weekend as European powers launched a campaign for UN Security Council sanctions against Assad.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos announced the much-delayed mission after the Security Council was briefed on a shoot-to-kill policy against protesters, stadium executions and children feared killed in Syrian government custody.
Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari fired back that the United States and its allies had launched a "humanitarian and diplomatic war" against his country.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest later told reporters on board Air Force One that the Obama administration expected the European Union to unveil fresh economic sanctions on Syria "soon."
European nations buy the bulk of the oil sent abroad by Syria, which exported some 148,000 barrels a day in 2009, according to the US government's Energy Information Administration.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay meanwhile said Syria may have committed crimes against humanity and urged the Security Council meeting to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.
A report by Pillay described "widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity."
It said Syrian security forces had targeted civilians with ground forces, rooftop snipers and aircraft "with an apparent shoot-to-kill policy."
The document also described summary executions, including reports that "forces conducted regular raids in hospitals to search for and kill injured demonstrators," as well as allegations of torture and arbitrary arrests.
It has been difficult to independently confirm events on the ground as Syria has heavily restricted media access since the start of the unrest.
© 2011 AFP