12 dead as Syria accused of 'crimes against humanity'
France accused Syria of "crimes against humanity" on Wednesday, as activists said regime forces killed at least 12 people, including nine in a tank-backed raid on the flashpoint city of Homs.
"The Syrian regime has committed crimes against humanity," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said during talks in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
"The way it (the Syrian regime) suppressed the popular protests is unacceptable," he said, expressing hope that Russia would change its stance and back UN condemnation of the crackdown.
The Syrian authorities, he said, should be sent "a powerful signal that such actions cannot continue."
The US ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, said in a posting on Facebook that President Bashar al-Assad's regime "bears the responsibility for the violence."
The United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed since democracy protests flared in Syria in mid-March.
Activists said the Syrian security forces killed another 12 people on Wednesday.
The Local Coordination Committees, which organises the anti-regime protests on the ground, said they included nine in the central city of Homs, one in Hama to the north and two in Sarmeen, Idlib province.
The forces used "gunfire and stun grenades to terrorise the people near the police headquarter around the citadel at the downtown," the LLC said in a statement sent to AFP in Nicosia.
The activists said forces backed by tanks swept early morning into Homs, where communications and Internet services were cut in many neighbourhoods.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "military reinforcements including 20 truckloads of soldiers entered the city," and that there was "intense gunfire in the market and governorate headquarters."
"Many ambulances were roaming the streets of the city," it added.
Heavy machinegun fire was heard in the Bab Dreib and Bostan Diwan neighbourhoods of Homs after 2,000 protesters had set out for the area following the deaths of four people near the city on Tuesday.
The activists said demonstrations also took place in several other parts of the strife-torn country, including Hama, but that a massive clampdown prevented rallies in the port of Latakia.
The deadly crackdown came only hours after Syria said it was postponing a planned visit to Damascus by the head of the Arab League.
The Cairo-based pan-Arab organisation said later that its secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, would now visit Syria on Saturday.
"It was decided that the Arab League secretary general will visit Syria on Saturday during a telephone conversation between (Arabi), Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Syria's envoy at the League," the pan-Arab group's deputy leader, Ahmed Ben Helli, told reporters in Cairo.
Damascus had postponed the trip at the 11th-hour "due to circumstances beyond our control."
Arabi has been commissioned by the 22-member bloc to travel to Damascus with a 13-point document outlining proposals to end the government's bloody crackdown on dissent and push Syria to launch reforms.
According to a copy of the document seen by AFP, Arabi was to propose Assad hold elections in three years, move towards a pluralistic government and immediately halt the crackdown.
The initiative, agreed at an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo last month, calls for a "clear declaration of principles by President Bashar al-Assad specifying commitment to reforms he made in past speeches."
The initiative angered Syria which said it contained "unacceptable and biased language."
In his posting on Facebook, US ambassador Ford took aim at the justifications that Assad's regime uses for the violent crackdown.
Ford said he accepted security forces had died during the nationwide protests, but stressed this was "far, far lower than the number of unarmed civilians killed."
He said Syria's government, with "a clear preponderance of arms and force, bears the responsibility for the violence."
It is not the first time Ford has clashed with leaders in Damascus. In July, he infuriated the regime by making a widely reported visit to the flashpoint city of Hama.
And after being refused permission three times to undertake new trips around Syria, Ford travelled on August 23 to the southern city of Jassem without informing the authorities beforehand.
Syria's regime, which has promised to launch a wide range of reforms to appease the protesters, blames the unrest on foreign-backed "armed terrorist gangs."
Its finance minister acknowledged on Wednesday that the violence has driven down economic growth expectations to one percent for 2011 and three percent in 2012, from the 5.5 percent recorded last year.
"Now, it will be around one percent, because of the events ... maybe between one to two percent," minister Mohammad Jleilati told reporters on the sidelines of an Arab ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi when asked about economic growth.
"The current circumstances, no doubt, have some negative impact on the economy. We hope to overcome it through reforms," he said.
© 2011 AFP