Syrians vow more protests as troops converge

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Pro-democracy activists in Syria vowed more protests against President Bashar al-Assad for Friday, as witnesses reported a convoy of troops and tanks heading for a flashpoint town in the northwest.

Ahead of the tanks and soldiers reported converging on Jisr al-Shughur, a centre of earlier bloodshed, hundreds of the town's residents were fleeing to Turkey, the nearest foreign haven.

About 1,300 Syrians fearing bloodshed back home crossed to Turkey on Wednesday and Thursday, Turkish officials and media said.

Pouring in through barbed wire or unguarded stretches of the border, the refugees included several dozen people who were hospitalised for treatment of injuries reportedly sustained in security crackdowns.

Syria says 120 police and soldiers were killed this week in Jisr al-Shughur by "armed gangs". Activists spoke of a mutiny by some security forces.

International alarm over the crackdown took the battle into the political arena.

At the United Nations Security Council, Western powers began debating a draft resolution put forward by Britain and France demanding an end to the violence and an arms embargo on Syria.

Russia on Thursday said it opposed the Security Council adopting any resolution on Syria, risking a major dispute with the West.

"The situation in this country, in our opinion, does not pose a threat to international peace and security," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said, quoted by Russian state media.

Moscow has long been considered an ally of Damascus as well as a major arms supplier and has warned the West not to side with the opposition.

Syria's foreign ministry, meanwhile, said Syria was "determined to pursue reforms under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. It will authorise no external interference on this subject."

In Geneva, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: "We are receiving an increasing number of alarming reports pointing to the Syrian government's continuing efforts to ruthlessly crush civilian protests."

The commissioner called on Damascus to halt the crackdown: "It is utterly deplorable for any government to attempt to bludgeon its population into submission, using tanks, artillery and snipers."

According to eyewitnesses, the convoy heading to Jisr al-Shughur had left the city of Aleppo along the main Aleppo-Idlib highway where one demonstrator was killed as he, with others, threw stones at the military.

At least 60 transporters carrying tanks and armoured vehicles, plus more than 10 lorries packed with soldiers, were seen on the route.

Human rights groups says more than 1,100 people have been killed throughout the country since the protests erupted in mid-March.

Pillay said activists were now reporting that up to 10,000 people had been detained. Damascus has disputed allegations of violations.

In another political clash, Russia and China said on Thursday they would oppose a US-backed resolution against Syria at a meeting of the UN atomic watchdog in Vienna.

Washington and its Western allies have asked the 35-member board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to find Syria in "non-compliance" with its international obligations and report it to the Security Council in New York.

But in statements to fellow board members ahead of a vote on the matter, both Moscow and Beijing said they saw no reason for such action.

At the heart of the struggle, the Syrian opposition on Thursday urged renewed protests for the following day under the slogan "Friday of the Tribes", using a Facebook page to spread their call.

"The tribes with the revolutionaries. The people want to bring down the regime peacefully and under the banner of national unity," said the website "Syrian Revolution 2011," calling on more tribes to join the protests.

At the Vatican on Thursday Pope Benedict XVI called on Damascus to respect the citizens' "dignity".

Meeting the new Syrian ambassador to the Holy See, Hussan Edin Aala, the pope said: "Every nation's path to unity and stability lies in recognising the inalienable dignity of all people. This recognition should be at the heart of institutions, laws and societies."

© 2011 AFP

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