(Updates death toll in first paragraph. See EXTRA <GO> for more news on turmoil in the Middle East.)
Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian security forces fired on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, killing at least 43 people since yesterday, a human-rights activist said.
At least 12 people, including two children, were killed in the central city of Homs, while a woman and a 12-year-old girl died in Daraa, in the south, where the uprising against Assad started nine months ago, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in an e-mailed statement from London. Two were killed today in Homs and several wounded, the group said.
Two children were among at least 18 people killed in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, while civilians were also shot in Hama, the northern province of Idlib, and the southern village of Inkhil, according to the organization. On Dec. 8, 29 were killed, mainly in Homs, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from Damascus yesterday.
The U.S. is concerned that the Syrian regime is preparing “something large scale” against protesters in Homs and elsewhere, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington yesterday. The U.S., the European Union and the Arab League are increasing economic and political pressure on Assad to end violence that risks tipping Syria into a civil war as soldiers defect and take up arms against the government.
More Than 4,000 Killed
The United Nations estimated on Dec. 1 that more than 4,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March, inspired by movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Tens of thousands have been arrested and more than 14,000 are reported to be in detention, the UN said.
“I cannot believe that he has not killed more than 4,000 people,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday while visiting Kenya. “All the credible information is that more than 4,000 people have been killed by the government force.”
The UN’s top human-rights official, Navi Pillay, told reporters in New York yesterday that, in addition to the civilian casualties, “I acknowledge that almost 1,000 of President Assad’s security forces have also been killed in this conflict and this is why I am alerting the world that, as you have more and more defectors from the security forces, this may well develop into a fully-fledged civil war.”
It was the first time UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay publicly recognized Assad’s figures on the number of military casualties.
Syria’s opposition said Dec. 8 that Assad can’t escape responsibility for the killing of protesters and should quit to spare the country further bloodshed.
The president, who denied in an ABC News interview this week that he gave orders to kill civilians, “has forgotten that he’s the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” Samir Nashar, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Council, said in a phone interview. “It’s strange that a leader of a nation says he doesn’t know what’s taking place. If that is the case, then let him step down and relieve the country and the people.”
Assad told ABC that he doesn’t “own” the country’s security forces, dismissed the UN’s estimate of the number killed, and asked for the organization to send “concrete evidence” to support allegations that Syria has committed war crimes, which he called a “distortion of reality.”
Out of Context
He attributed violence against protesters to “mistakes committed by some officials” rather than a policy of repression by force.
Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, said that the president’s quotes were taken out of context. “The objective is to demonize Syria,” he told reporters according to a broadcast on Al Arabiya television.
The Arab League said this week that it will maintain economic sanctions on Syria, rebuffing a demand by Assad’s government to remove the measures as one of several conditions for admitting Arab monitors. The U.S. and EU have also imposed sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Syrian National Council in Geneva on Dec. 6.
Assad told ABC that he’s not concerned about sanctions, which he said haven’t isolated Syria. The president said Dec. 8 while receiving a delegation of Lebanese Druze leaders that Syria “is able to overcome the current events” and won’t change its policies, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.
--With assistance from Nayla Razzouk in Dubai, Nadeem Hamid and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington and Flavia Krause- Jackson in United Nations. Editor: Terry Atlas, Ann Hughey, Nasreen Seria
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