(Updates with new death toll in eighth paragraph. For more on the Middle East turmoil, see MET.)
July 6 (Bloomberg) -- At least 22 people were killed in Syria yesterday as security forces extended a push into cities where thousands attended anti-government rallies against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, activists said.
The latest casualties follow rallies on July 1 and 2 in Hama, a city north of Damascus, which drew as many as 400,000 people, according to Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria and Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Electricity and water supplies have been cut in the city, the activists said.
Protests against Assad’s 11-year rule began in mid-March as part of a wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa this year that has unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Assad on June 20 blamed the protests on a foreign conspiracy and said the opposition was seeking to carve a sectarian divide.
Assad last month called for talks with the opposition. He allowed a meeting in Damascus of intellectuals and academics who are critics of the government to set the stage for the dialogue.
The Syrian government’s talk of reconciliation with protesters demanding more democratic rights hasn’t been met by its actions, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
“We see Hama surrounded by Syrian security forces, so we’re going in the wrong direction,” she said, speaking to reporters in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said July 1 that Assad is “running out of time” to meet the protesters’ demands.
The protests are the biggest challenge to the Assad family since 1982, when an uprising also took place in the city of Hama. That year, Assad’s father and predecessor, President Hafez al-Assad, used the army to end the protests led by the Muslim Brotherhood movement, killing at least 10,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch. The Assads are from the Alawite minority in the Sunni Muslim-majority country of more than 21 million people.
Pro-government forces have killed more than 1,600 people since the start of the unrest, according to Qurabi and Merhi. Hundreds have been arrested in Hama, in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma, in the province of Idlib in the north and in the southern province of Daraa, where the rallies against Assad’s rule began in mid-March, according to the human rights activists.
Assad last month said that the protests have been marked by “vandalism, murder and the destruction of private property,” and the demonstrators are being paid. Syrian security forces have also been killed in the clashes, though the government hasn’t said how many. At least two mass graves were found with bodies of police and security personnel, the government has said.
The “brutal methods” used in a Syrian security operation in the western town of Tallkalakh “may constitute crimes against humanity,” Amnesty International said in a report today, based on interviews with more than 50 people. The London- based organization said every family from the town had at least one relative in detention and that most of those detained were tortured.
“The accounts we have heard from witnesses to events in Tallkalakh paint a deeply disturbing picture of systematic, targeted abuses to crush dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.
Thousands of Syrians have fled across the border to Turkey to escape violence in northern towns, straining relations between the countries.
A total of 9,472 Syrians remain in tent cities in Turkey set up by the Turkish Red Crescent in the province of Hatay, the country’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency said today in a statement. As many as 15,371 people entered Turkey during the upheaval.
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