Smoke raised in city after army crackdown
Dark cloud of smoke rises in Hama, after Syrian army tanks firing shells and machine guns stormed the city. Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that attacks on pro-democracy protesters have stopped, but activists reported more bloodshed overnight.

Local activists said two protesters were shot dead by pro-Assad militiamen Wednesday after nightly Ramadan prayers in the city of Homs, and security forces carried out raids on districts of Hama and the capital Damascus.

The United States was expected to call on Assad to step down, sources in Washington told Reuters. It could come as soon as Thursday, with the European Union expected to follow suit, the sources said.

"Assad is trying to convince Turkey that the attacks have stopped, which could also help appease the United States, thinking he could once again stop Washington from calling on him to step down," a Western diplomat in Damascus said. "But the operations have not even stopped."

Assad has escalated a military campaign against the uprising since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Aug. 1, and security forces have killed scores of people.

Although authorities have announced the army's withdrawal from Hama and Deir al-Zor, residents say military units are still present in those cities and arrests and shootings of protesters have continued. The army is also still deployed in Homs and the coastal city of Latakia.

Hama residents said regime forces raided homes in al-Qusour neighborhood overnight, while hundreds of police and shabbiha militiamen stormed the Rukn al-Din neighborhood of Damascus.

Local activists said Syrian troops on the Turkish border fired toward the village of Bdama to halt the movement of refugees from Latakia toward the frontier.

Overall, 24 civilians were killed Wednesday across Syria, the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union said.

In a phone call with Assad Wednesday, Ban expressed alarm at reports of widespread violations of human rights and excessive use of force by the Syrian security forces against civilians, the U.N. said.

"The secretary-general emphasized that all military operations and mass arrests must cease immediately. President Assad said that the military and police operations had stopped," the statement said.

The government crackdown is estimated to have killed at least 2,000 civilians since the protests began five months ago. Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country.

The U.N. human rights chief is expected to suggest that the U.N. Security Council refer Syria's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters to the International Criminal Court, envoys said.

The developments were part of a flurry of diplomatic maneuvers ramping up the pressure on Assad to stop his military and police crackdown on protesters against his rule.

Residents of the besieged port city of Latakia said Wednesday that regime forces raided houses in a Sunni district, arresting hundreds of people and taking them to a stadium after a four-day tank assault to crush protests.

Assad's forces attacked al-Raml, a seafront area where a Palestinian refugee camp was built in the 1950s, on the weekend as part of the campaign to crush the uprising.

Latakia is of particular significance to Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite community. The 45-year-old president, a self-declared champion of the Palestinian cause, comes from a village to the southeast, where his father is buried. The Assad family, along with friends, controls the city's port and its finances.

Some Palestinians have joined in demonstrations against Assad, even though Syria hosts exiled leaders of the Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement and other Palestinian groups.


Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said three refugees had been killed at the camp. Many had been wounded in the assault.

"UNRWA's information indicates that most of the inhabitants have indeed left and that there are only five to 10 vulnerable families remaining, unable to physically leave," Gunness said.

He said about 150 families had fled to Homs, in central Syria, where anti-Assad unrest has also been put down.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the 15-nation U.N. Security Council in a closed-door session on Syria Thursday, along with U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

"OHCHR (Pillay's office) have indicated that their Syria report will find evidence that Syria has committed grave violations of international human rights law in its actions dealing with protesters over the past five months," a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Pillay also will say an international investigation is needed and she was likely to suggest the ICC would be appropriate, the diplomat said.

The ICC is a permanent war crimes court based in The Hague.

The council has referred only two cases to the ICC -- the situation in Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region and, earlier this year, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's crackdown against anti-government demonstrators.

Council diplomats say Russia and China, with their vetoes, would be reluctant to allow a referral of Syria's case to the ICC at the current time.


Local activists in Syria said an unknown number of refugees from Latakia had fled to the northwestern border with Turkey, which had received more than 10,000 refugees from earlier assaults by Assad's forces on Idlib province to the north of Latakia.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan compared the situation in Syria with that in Libya, where rebels have been fighting forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi since February.

"We have done our best on Libya, but haven't been able to generate any results. So it's an international issue now. Gaddafi could not meet our expectations, and the outcome was obvious," Erdogan said.

"Now the same situation is going on in Syria. I've sent my foreign minister, and personally got in touch many times, the last of them three days ago on the phone. In spite of all this, civilians are still getting killed."

A diplomat in the Syrian capital said: "The reports about detention conditions and torture are increasingly alarming. Assad is backing himself more into a corner by using more and more violence and turning more Syrians against him."

(Additional reporting by Peter Cooney and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan)