Last updated: 18 October, 2011

Syria in ‘fiercest’ crackdown around capital

Activists said at least 17 civilians and seven soldiers were killed on Wednesday in the latest violence sweeping protest-hit Syria, including deadly clashes near the Lebanese border.

Syria’s leading opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council, meanwhile, threatened to seek foreign intervention to stop the regime’s deadly crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.

Speaking in the Libyan capital, SNC member Najib Ghadbian said they were determined to “bring down” the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, accusing it of seeking to “militarise” the protest movement.

“If the regime continues to be so irresponsible… our main objective is to call for the protection of civilians,” along the lines of a UN no-fly zone set up in Libya that cleared the way to NATO air strikes, he said.

On the home front, 17 civilians were killed in Syria, including three teenage girls and a woman, while at least seven soldiers died in clashes with suspected army defectors, a watchdog group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight people were killed in Homs, central Syria, including four shot dead by pro-regime “shabiha” militiamen.

The other eight civilians were killed in and around the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, where clashes raged between troops and suspected army deserters, the watchdog said.

One woman was hit by a stray bullet while the teenage girls were killed when their home was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade as troops battled the suspected defectors near Qusayr.

Syrian forces raked homes with heavy machine-guns as they raided neighbourhoods searching for suspects wanted by the authorities, the Observer said, adding that around 200 people were arrested in the raids.

One man was killed in a raid by security forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, it said.

The Observatory also reported that at least seven Syrian soldiers were killed and others wounded in clashes with suspected army defectors in the village of Jussiyeh near Qusayr.

But a group of defectors known as the Syrian Free Army gave a higher toll, saying in a statement on its Facebook page that 40 soldiers were killed in the clashes and that 30 others defected, taking with them four tanks.

The statement said that the so-called Omar bin Khattab Brigade also “destroyed a tank” in Jussiyeh, near the Lebanon border.

The United Nations estimates more than 3,000 people, including 187 children, have been killed in a fierce crackdown on dissent in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.

Arab League efforts to help defuse the deadly violence — specifically a call for a dialogue between the government and the opposition — were met with harsh criticism in the official Al-Thawra newspaper on Wednesday.

“It is no longer surprising to see the Arab League, which is supposed to be concerned with joint Arab action, turn into an instrument of injustice aimed at destabilising Syria,” the newspaper said.

The daily said the 22-member Arab League was “hostage to powers following the agenda of aggressors like the United States, Israel and their European allies.”

“Following years of inaction, the Arab League has now become a tool of destabilisation, and is acting against Arab interests,” the paper said.

Last week the Arab League called for the launch in Cairo of a “national dialogue” between Syria’s government and the opposition by the end of the month to help end the violence.

Syrian state television on Wednesday aired a broadcast of what it said was a pro-Assad rally in the second city of Aleppo, Syria’s economic hub, claiming it was attended by a million supporters of the president.

And the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that authorities arrested several “armed terrorists” including two members of the so-called Abu Sham group in Homs while weapons and army uniforms were seized.