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Syrian forces bombarded cities where opposition is concentrated as President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree enacting a constitution that he says will introduce political pluralism after almost a year of violence.
Assad, facing international pressure to end his crackdown on dissent, is seeking to affirm his mandate as Syria’s leader following a Feb. 26 referendum. The European Union, which dismissed the vote’s validity, decided yesterday to tighten sanctions. The official Syrian Arab News Agency said 89 percent of voters backed the charter, which promises democratic elections while limiting presidents to two seven-year terms.
“Assad can’t save the regime with such for-show-only steps because the protests absolutely won’t stop,” Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, said by telephone today. “The Assad regime has no other chance than suppressing the demonstrations by force because it no longer has any legitimacy among the masses.”
Shelling of the central city of Homs has continued since the beginning of the month and the army has intermittently attacked provinces including Idlib in the north, according to reports by television channels including Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera. Syrian forces killed 60 people today, and yesterday’s death toll was 138, Al Arabiya said.
Syria “must” change and the country won’t stabilize otherwise, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the Saudi Okaz newspaper in an interview e-mailed by his office.
“A national unity government must be formed, freedoms must be given, an impartial election under United Nations and Arab supervision must be held and a national council should be elected to approve the constitution,” said Maliki, whose government abstained from the Arab League vote in November to impose sanctions against Assad.
Tunisia is ready to grant Assad and his family asylum “if this proposal will contribute to stop the bloodshed and end the killing of Syrians,” a spokesman for the north African nation’s presidency, Adnen Mnasser, said today in an e-mailed statement.
At least 68 corpses of people who sought to flee the fighting in the Baba Amr district have been recovered, according to the Observatory for Human Rights in Syria. About 8,500 people have died in Assad’s crackdown against the protests that began last March, the Arab Organization for Human Rights says.
“My office has received disturbing reports of a rapidly deteriorating human-rights and humanitarian situation,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva today. “Syrian military and security forces have launched massive campaigns of arrest, arbitrarily detaining thousands of protesters, as well as activists and others suspected of anti-government activities.”
Pillay called on Assad to cooperate with the international community, provide “unhindered” access to Syria and release all political and arbitrary detainees. Referring Syria to the International Criminal Court to stop the violence “will be a step in the right direction,” she said.
Faisal Khabbaz Hamwi, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, left the Geneva meeting after making a speech in which he said the session was aimed at attacking his country under the pretext of humanitarian needs.
Teams from the Syrian Red Crescent were able to enter Baba Amr yesterday, although their efforts to evacuate western journalists failed, Al Arabiya reported, citing a person it didn’t identify.
British journalist Paul Conroy escaped to Lebanon with the help of the opposition Free Syrian Army, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. Edith Bouvier, the French journalist injured in Homs last week, was also evacuated to Lebanon, Al Arabiya reported, citing French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The EU said it will introduce new measures to pressure Assad’s regime that include freezing the central bank’s assets, banning precious-metals trading with the country and prohibiting cargo-only flights. The sanctions build on an oil embargo approved in September. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is campaigning for re-election, said France would press Russia and China to drop their opposition to UN sanctions against Syria.
Countering the EU measures, Venezuela’s Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said yesterday that his country will continue providing fuel to Syria, which he described as “a country under siege.” State-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA sent two cargoes of diesel to Syria and “shipments will continue as they are needed,” Ramirez said.
Syria’s army has intensified attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China on Feb. 4.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar endorse arming the Syrian opposition, raising the prospect of a widening conflict after the “Friends of Syria” group met in Tunis on Feb. 24 to pressure Assad to step down.
More than 60 soldiers defected near Idlib today, the Local Coordination Committees said on its Facebook Inc. page. Army troops raided a neighborhood in the coastal city of Latakia in search of seven defectors from the navy, Al Arabiya reported.
The opposition Free Syrian Army has 40,000 members, some of whom fled Assad’s forces, such as former Colonel Riad al-As’ad, who formed the group after entering a refugee camp in Turkey. Assad blames the unrest on “armed terrorist” groups.
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