US, Russian have strong words for Syria's Assad
The United States and Russia had harsh words for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday, a day after the UN Security Council condemned his deadly crackdown on anti-regime demonstrators.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country has so far stonewalled firmer UN action, hinted at a possible change of heart, while the White House bluntly said Syria would be "better off" without Assad.
With its sharp rhetoric, Washington also stepped up the pressure, imposing sanctions on a businessman close to the Syrian president.
Meanwhile, witnesses and activists said security forces killed at least 37 people on Wednesday, 30 of them as tanks shelled the flashpoint protest hub of Hama.
A Hama resident, who managed to escape the city, told AFP in Nicosia that "the bodies of 30 people who were killed during shelling by the army have been buried in several public parks."
The witness, who declined to be identified for security reasons, said scores of people were being treated in hospitals for injuries and that fires had broken out in several buildings.
"Tanks are deployed throughout the city, particularly in Assi Square and outside the citadel," he said about landmarks in the city centre.
The witness said the army had used "bombs that break up into fragments when they explode," possibly meaning cluster bombs, on Wednesday and that Hama echoed with the intermittent sound of machine-gun fire on Thursday.
"Conditions are very difficult in the city. Communications, electricity and water are cut and there are food shortages," he said.
As the crackdown continue, Assad decreed a new law authorising the creation of political parties alongside the ruling Baath party, which has been in power since 1963 with the constitutional status of "the leader of state and society."
Political pluralism has been at the forefront of demands by pro-reform dissidents who since March 15 have been taking to the streets across Syria almost daily to call for greater freedoms.
"Citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic have the right to establish political parties and join them in accordance with this law," state news agency SANA said.
But activists and analysts dismissed the law as a ploy and said constitutional change alone can pave the way to democracy.
"The regime is not serious about transforming the country from a dominant party into democracy and pluralism. Instead, it is trying to carry out some cosmetic work to improve its image," said prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.
In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the multi-party reform offer is "in principle a step in the right direction, but only if they are genuinely put into effect."
The new law is the latest attempt by Assad's regime to appease protesters after the president, in April, issued orders lifting five decades of draconian emergency rule and abolishing the feared state security courts.
Assad's latest concession came after the UN Security Council condemned the crackdown and said those responsible should be held accountable -- in its first pronouncement on Syria since the protests began.
Unable to agree on a formal resolution, the council settled on a non-binding statement condemning "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."
Western powers had hoped for stronger action but were rebuffed by veto-wielding members Russia and China, who feared doing so would pave the way for another military intervention like the one in Libya.
But Medvedev spoke forcefully about the situation on Thursday and called on Assad to "carry out urgent reforms" warning that otherwise "a sad fate awaits him and in the end we will have to take some decisions."
"We are watching the way the situation develops. As it changes, some of our perspectives also change," Medvedev said.
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Jay Carney said "Assad is on his way out.
"It is very safe to say that Syria will be a much better place without President Assad."
Earlier this week, he said Washington did not view Assad as "indispensible."
"The US has nothing invested in Assad remaining in power. We do not want to see him to remain in Syria for stability's sake and rather we view him as the cause for instability in Syria."
Washington tightened the screw on Assad by freezing the US assets of Mohammad Hamsho, describing him as "one of Syria's top businessmen" and a close business associate of the president and his family.
"Muhammad Hamsho earned his fortune through his connections to regime insiders," said the US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, also linking him to Assad's brother, Maher.
Observers have said Lieutenant Colonel Maher al-Assad, who heads the Syrian army's elite Fourth Division, has spearheaded the crackdown in Syria, where activists say 1,600 civilians have been killed since mid-March.
© 2011 AFP