(Updates with U.S. State Department comment in seventh- eighth paragraphs.)
Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian forces pressed on with their eight-month crackdown on anti-government activists after President Bashar al-Assad accepted an Arab League plan for ending the violence and freeing detainees.
At least eight people were killed in gunfire today, including six in Homs and two in Kanakar, as activists called for protests after Muslim Friday prayers, Al Arabiya television reported. Twenty-two people died yesterday, most in Homs, when security forces fired tanks and machine guns, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said today by phone. The security forces were carrying out widespread arrests in the suburbs of Damascus, he said.
Arab League officials urged the immediate implementation of the plan, announced Nov. 2 in Cairo by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani. It calls for the cessation of “all violence from any sources to protect Syrian citizens,” the release of people held during protests, and clearing cities and neighborhoods of “all military displays.”
More than 4,000 demonstrators have been killed during the protests against Assad’s rule, according to Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. The unrest was inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt this year. Assad has blamed the fighting in Syria on Islamic militants and foreign provocateurs, and sent security forces to crush the demonstrations.
Syria’s agreement with the Arab initiative should be met with skepticism because the government has shown no sign of interest in dialogue or a cease-fire, said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.
“Their past record suggests their main interest is just about buying time and placating external criticism rather than a newfound commitment to dialogue and solving the crisis,” Phillips said in a telephone interview late yesterday. “If the regime is saying they are interested in dialogue and willing to cooperate, the onus then falls on the opposition.”
Assad is not abiding by the Arab League accord, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today.
“To date, not a single one of the commitments that have been made to the Arab League have been fulfilled,” Nuland said. The Syrian government “is continuing to abuse and brutalize” the Syrian people, she said.
Sheikh Hamad said that an Arab League committee will continue contacts with the government and opposition groups to prepare for a national dialogue conference within two weeks.
Any dialogue with the government must be about Assad stepping down and should be held in Cairo, not Damascus, said Samir Nashar, a member of the executive bureau of the opposition Syrian National Council. He spoke in a telephone interview after meeting yesterday with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El- Arabi. The SNC, an umbrella movement uniting several of Syria’s opposition groups, was formed on Oct. 2.
“The regime is using this agreement to simply kill more people,” Qurabi said. “There can only be negotiations about Assad accepting an agreement to step down.”
The Arab League accord calls for the Syrian government to withdraw armored vehicles from major cities, allow foreign media into the country and release all those imprisoned since the uprising in the country began in March.
“What’s important now is for the Syrian side to implement this agreement because this agreement helps calm the situation and resolve the crisis,” Sheikh Hamad said. “If the Syrian government doesn’t implement, then this will require the Arab League to meet and make the appropriate decisions.”
The Arab League’s efforts at brokering an accord in Syria follow the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi by rebels backed by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign. The NATO air action was authorized by the United Nations after the Arab League asked the west for help in dealing with Qaddafi’s assault on civilians.
--With assistance from Mariam Fam in Cairo. Editors: Heather Langan, Digby Lidstone, Karl Maier
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