Sunday, February 12, 2012


Activist: Syrian army uses human shields on tanks

(CNN) -- Syrian government forces are using detained civilians as human shields, placing them on tanks in the besieged city of Homs to prevent the opposition Free Syrian Army from fighting back, an opposition activist said.

The latest tactic came as shelling rained on city's Baba Amr neighborhood once again Sunday, residents say, marking at least the eighth straight day President Bashar al-Assad's troops have pummeled Homs in an attempt to wipe out the opposition.

"My house is dancing. I am almost dead because of the siege," said the opposition activist, named Omar.

At least 23 people were killed Sunday, including a woman and two children, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC). The death toll included nine people in Daraa, five in Homs, four in Idlib, two in Hama, two in Damascus suburbs, and one in Damascus, the group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another opposition activist group, reported different numbers, including 14 dead in Homs. A child was killed by a sniper in Daraa, the group said.

The observatory also said a member of Syria's army was killed in Daraa and eight were killed in Hama, as were civilians in each city.

Three civilians were killed in Sunday's shelling on Baba Amr, according the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group. A fourth civilian was killed by gunfire near the town of Bab Houweid, the group said.

CNN cannot independently confirm details of the fighting in Syria because the government has severely limited the access of international journalists.

While residents in Homs wonder whether their house will be the next attacked, Arab League members gathered in Cairo on Sunday to discuss its next steps on Syria.

Nabil el-Araby, the league's secretary general, suggested that the United Nations deploy a joint force of U.N. and Arab League military experts on the ground as an observatory mission, a league official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak to the media.

Abdel Baset Sida, a senior official from the Syrian National Council who was at the Arab League meeting, said his group had discussed several options with el-Araby , including the possibility of a joint U.N.-Arab League mission.

Russia has accepted the Arab League proposal, according to a foreign minister of one of the Arab States taking part in the league meeting. Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution aimed at halting the violence, drawing anger from many world leaders.

The Arab League will impose unprecedented sanctions on Syria, according to the foreign minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was directly involved in ongoing discussions.

But Syria issued a statement saying it "rejects the Arab League decisions in its entirety and it stresses that any decision that the Arab League takes in Syria's absence is not binding." It added that the league's statements reflect "the state of hysteria affecting some Arab governments, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, after Qatar's failure to pass a U.N. resolution that allows foreign intervention in Syria."

Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Ahmad al-Dabi, of Sudan, resigned as head of the league's monitoring mission in Syria, according to the Arab League official who spoke with CNN. The mission was suspended late last month amid increasing violence in the country.

"The Syrian leadership has chosen chaos," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Sunday. "It is killing its people and destroying the nation only to maintain its authority. What is happening in Syria leaves no doubt that it is not ethnic or sectarian war or urban warfare. It is a campaign of mass cleansing to punish the Syrian people and enforce the regime's authority without any humanitarian or ethical regards."

Syria, which routinely blames the violence on "armed terrorist groups," said Sunday on state-run news agency SANA that "martyrs" of two terrorist attacks in Aleppo were buried.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri weighed in on the conflict as well, in a new video posted online Saturday, calling al-Assad "the butcher son of a butcher" and praising the Syrian people for waging "jihad."

"Oh our brothers in Syria, do not rely on the West or the Arab leaders or Turkey. Do not rely on the Arab League because you cannot give what you do not have. Only rely on God ... All of these parties do not want Syria to be a free, Muslim, stable, strong nation against Israel, but instead weak and divided from its tradition, and they want Syria to recognize Israel and engage in international injustice."

He called on the fighters to insist on a "government that governs with Islam" and is free of corruption. "I call on all free Muslims to dedicate themselves to Syria with prayers, money, knowledge," he said. And Zawahiri complained that Syria "protects Israel" and joins the United States in a "fight against Islam."

It was not known exactly when Zawahiri taped the message.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI called for peace.

"I renew a pressing appeal to put an end to violence and bloodshed," the pope said at St. Peter's Square. He called on "everyone, and above all the political authorities in Syria, to favor the paths of dialogue, reconciliation and commitment to peace. It's urgent to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the various components of the nation, as well as the wishes of the international community concerned about the welfare of the entire region, the entire society and the region."

The international community has repeatedly failed to convince al-Assad's regime to stop the massacre, so it's unclear what effect the Arab League talks could have.

But U.N. diplomats are mulling another draft resolution -- this one brought forth by Saudi Arabia -- and are expected to convene Monday.

The Saudi draft resolution will be submitted to the U.N. General Assembly, where vetoes are not allowed, but resolutions are not legally binding. Russia and China have vetoed previous U.N. Security Council attempts at passing a resolution condemning the Syrian regime.

The latest, three-page draft "strongly condemns" the violations of human rights by Syrian authorities. It cites "the use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, killing and persecution of protesters, human rights defenders and journalists, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence and ill-treatment, including against children."

The text was provided to CNN by a diplomatic source on the condition that it not be posted in full because it could be amended.

At least 687 people, including 59 children, died in the past week, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported late Saturday. About two-thirds of those deaths occurred in Homs, said the opposition LCC.

The capital city of Damascus has not seen the level of bloodshed other cities have endured in the 11-month Syrian uprising, but the reported killing a Syrian general there could indicate the resistance is spreading to the seats of power.

An "armed terrorist group" assassinated Brig. Gen. Issa al-Kholi, a military physician who was the director of Hamish Hospital, in front of his Damascus house Saturday morning, SANA reported. Three gunmen fatally shot him, the media outlet said.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said al-Kholi is from a powerful Alawite military family and is a relative of Mohammed al-Kholi, the former head of air force intelligence under Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad's father and predecessor who ruled Syria for three decades.

The al-Assad family is Alawite, a minority in Sunni-dominated Syria that has a major presence in the military and government.

While al-Kholi was not likely a senior officer or affiliated with a key regime unit, his assassination is believed to be the first of a higher-ranking Syrian officer in the capital, said Jeffrey White, a defense analyst at the institute.

Free Syrian Army Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamado said al-Kholi is "definitely close to Bashar's inner circle" and that his family has been close to both Bashar al-Assad and his father. The Free Syrian Army is the anti-regime resistance group led by military defectors.

The deputy head of the Free Syrian Army said the killing could have been carried out by the regime itself.

The al-Assad regime "is now assassinating and targeting anyone they suspect of joining the revolution or thinking of defecting. That may have been the case with General al-Kholi," Col. Malek Al Kurdi said.

Al Kurdi claims the regime "assassinated" the deputy head of the armed forces, Gen. Bassam Najm el-Din Antakiali, in September, even though state media reported that he died of an "acute heart attack."

Five people in Turkey have been detained in the probe into the disappearance of a Syrian military defector who supported the opposition, Turkey's semi-official Anatolian Agency reported Sunday.

Hussein al Harmoush announced last year he would help lead the movement from exile in Turkey. He then disappeared one morning when he stepped out of the makeshift refugee camp he and his family were living in in the Turkish border town of Altinozu.

After going missing for more than two weeks, Harmoush suddenly resurfaced in a "confession" aired on Syrian state TV. In the September 15 broadcast, Harmoush recanted his support for the opposition. His whereabouts now are unknown.

Anatolian Agency said a second person, Mustafa Kassum, disappeared as well. The five suspects have been charged with "political espionage and eliminating one's freedom," the report said.

There was no immediate mention of the report on Syria's news agency SANA.

Al-Assad's regime has insisted its crackdown is aimed at armed gangs and foreign terrorists bent on destabilizing the regime.

But virtually all reports from within the country indicate al-Assad's forces are slaughtering protesters and other civilians en masse. Opposition activists in Homs describe relentless bomb explosions from Syrian forces, wounded people bleeding to death in the streets because they can't get medical attention and snipers picking off civilians running for cover.

U.N. officials estimate 6,000 people have died since protests seeking al-Assad's ouster began nearly a year ago. The LCC says the toll has far exceeded 7,000.

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