Bloomberg News

Syrians Defy Government Crackdown on Eve of Tunisia Meeting

February 24, 2012

Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Syrians rallied against the government in the Aleppo region and the government resumed its assault on Homs as U.S., European and Arab politicians prepared to meet in Tunisia tomorrow to seek ways to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad’s forces resumed shelling the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs at 7 a.m., the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The residential area is where Marie Colvin, an American reporter working for the U.K.’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed yesterday. Mortar shells also landed on the Khalideyeh neighborhood of Homs, the group said, while explosions were heard in Aleppo where protesters had rallied for the funeral of an 8-year-old child who died in gunfire overnight.

Syria has come under mounting international pressure as a result of Assad’s crackdown on protesters, which is nearing its one-year mark. Government forces have intensified efforts to stamp out the rebellion by using mortars, artillery and tanks. The UN estimates more than 5,400 Syrians died last year as loyalist forces cracked down on protests that began in March. Overall, more than 8,500 people have been killed during the conflict, according to Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights.

At least four people were killed today, the observatory said. Security forces clashed with army defectors in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March, while Syrian forces opened fire and used tear gas on a crowd of 2,000 students rallying in Aleppo, it said.

Tunisian Meeting

Ministers from the U.S., Europe and Arab nations will attend the summit tomorrow to discuss how to help the struggle to oust Assad. “We expect humanitarian assistance, however nothing can come into the country without the approval of the government,” Merei said by phone from Damascus today.

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, said the situation in Homs “is desperate after more than 20 days of indiscriminate shelling. People are low on almost all supplies and the latest military offensive follows a green light that Syria got from the double veto at the UN Security Council,” he said in a phone interview today.

The meeting in Tunisia, which will be attended by officials from about 80 nations, comes in the aftermath of setbacks at the UN Security Council as a result of two Russian and Chinese vetoes of resolutions calling on Assad to step down. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to join other foreign ministers and representatives of international organizations. Russia announced it isn’t attending the meeting.

‘Campaign of Terror’

“I don’t expect anything nor do I wager anything on this conference or the international community,” Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the observatory, said by phone today.

Governments should “redouble our efforts to stop the Assad regime’s despicable campaign of terror,” U.K Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an e-mailed statement yesterday after the deaths of Colvin and Ochlik.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry called on foreign media “to respect press laws in Syria,” and “avoid breaking the law and entering Syria illegally,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. The government “rejects all statements that Syria bears responsibility for the death of journalists who sneaked in at their own risk and without the knowledge of the authorities,” it said.

Assad accused unidentified foreign interests of providing weapons and financial support to “armed terrorist groups” as they seek to destabilize Syria, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported Feb. 20.

Both the U.S. and European Union want tighter sanctions on Syria. The 27-nation EU is considering a freeze on central bank assets, an EU official told reporters in Brussels on Feb. 8 on condition of anonymity. The Arab League has already suspended Syria and imposed economic sanctions against it.

--With assistance from Jonathan Stearns in Brussels. Editors: Digby Lidstone, Leon Mangasarian.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon at mderhally@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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