REUTERS - Fourteen civilians were killed in a crackdown on dissent against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday, activists said, despite a deadline by the Arab League for Damascus to take steps to end the bloodshed.
The Arab League, a powerful political group of Arab states, set the Saturday deadline for Syria to comply with a peace plan, entailing a military pullout from around restive areas, and threatened sanctions if Assad failed to halt the violence.
But on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 civilians were killed in security force raids while two army defectors died when they clashed with the Syrian army in Homs, which has become a centre of armed revolt against more than 40 years of Assad family rule.
Activists said the deaths added to a growing toll from late on Friday, when 25 civilians were killed in attacks by Syrian forces and by gunmen suspected of belonging to the opposition. Ten soldiers were also killed in clashes with army defectors.
The United Nations says the crackdown on the protests has killed at least 3,500 people since March. Authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed groups which it says have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police.
Syria has barred most independent journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to verify reports from activists or officials.
Assad has come under growing international pressure to end the crackdown on the eight month revolt. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership over its inability to stem the violence in a surprise move last week.
The organisation has yet to detail what will happen now that violence has continued up to the deadline, but previously it threatened political and economic sanctions.
Fears of civil war
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern that Syria, seen as a fault line of several regional conflicts, could slide into civil war.
“I think there could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by defectors from the army,” she told NBC news in Indonesia, where she was attending a regional summit.
Dissident colonel Riad al-Asaad, organising defectors in Syria from his new base in southern Turkey, said in a television interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday that no military intervention was needed other than providing a no-fly zone and weapons supplies.
He said more deserters would swell his Free Syrian Army’s ranks if there were protected buffer zones to which they could flee: “Soldiers and officers in the army are waiting for the right opportunity.”
Violence that began with protests after weekly prayers on Friday stretched late into the night and into Saturday as security forces began raids into areas with demonstrations and defectors clashed with the army.
In Homs, which has also seen escalating sectarian violence, gunmen attacked a bus transporting workers and killed at least 13 late on Friday, an activist told Reuters.
“It is likely because some of those workers were Alawites,” he said, referring to the minority religious sect to which the Assad family belongs.
A resident in Homs, who declined to be named, also told Reuters that defected soldiers attacked a car carrying members of Air Force Intelligence, killing four.
On Saturday, Syria’s state news agency SANA said security forces had captured 140 wanted men from several parts of the country that had seen protests.
“Over 140 wanted people were captured ... after raids on several sites belonging to terrorist groups,” SANA said.
Syria says still strong
Clinton said the international community was reluctant to intervene the same way it did in Libya, where NATO forces backed rebel groups who toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
“There is no appetite for that kind of action vis-à-vis Syria,” she said, pointing to moves by the Arab League and Turkey, who have stepped up diplomatic pressure on Syria and threatened to follow the West in implementing sanctions.
Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdulkarim Ali, said that large pro-government rallies, which have also been organised regularly in recent weeks, showed that foreign pressure would not succeed in weakening the government.
“There is great optimism that Syria has the stronger hand and that international pressure will tumble in the face of Syrian national unity and (Syria’s) balance and responsible policies that have confronted all these challenges,” Ali was cited as saying in the Lebanese daily, al-Safir, on Saturday.
Syria argues it has been unable to fully enforce the Arab League plan to end unrest due to armed resistance. It has also accused neighbouring countries, mostly pointedly Turkey, of allowing weapons to be smuggled in to its armed opponents.
But dissident colonel Asaad said in his TV interview “not a single bullet” had been smuggled from Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. Weapons were brought by defectors, obtained in raids on the regular army or bought from arms dealers inside Syria, he said.
“The regime knows there are men who will sell weapons for a little cash ... we are not getting any weapons from abroad.”