20 Aug 2011

Syrian military kills dozens as protests intensify

10:57 pm on 20 August 2011

Syrian forces have killed dozens of protesters despite assurances from President Bashar al-Assad that the government crackdown was over.

Activists say 40 people were shot dead overnight by President Assad's forces in the southern province of Deraa, the city of Homs, in the suburbs of Damascus and in the ancient desert city of Palmyra.

They say four of the dead were children.

Syrian state media gave a different account, saying gunmen had opened fire on worshippers and security forces, killing at least two policemen.

Syrian authorities have banned independent media from Homs, the country's third largest city, and the rest of Syria, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.

The BBC reports most of the deaths were in three towns in Deraa province, where the uprising began in March.

Earlier in the week President al-Assad told the United Nations that police and army operations against civilians had halted.

A spokesperson for the Syrian government, Reem Haddad, blames the violence on armed gangs and says the security forces are only shooting when they are being shot at.

"The protesters are not protestors with legal and rightful demands, but they are people who are carrying guns, who are carrying arms while causing terror in cities."

Human rights groups believe that about 2000 people have been killed and thousands arrested since March as Syria's security forces - using tanks, helicopters, gunships and snipers - try to quell dissent that has broken out in much of the country.

International pressure increases

Encouraged by growing global pressure on President Assad, the Syrian opposition in exile said it would set up a National Council in Turkey this weekend.

It says this would support the uprising and help fill any power vacuum should the protests succeed in ousting the president.

The European Union has announced new sanctions against Syria and is discussing a ban on the import of Syrian crude oil.

The United States on Thursday for the first time joined European leaders in calling for President Assad to step down.

Russia rejected the US calls for President Assad to go, saying he should be given more time to enact reforms.

Syria's UN envoy accused the US of trying to instigate insurrection.