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Syrian Army Pounds Towns as UN Officals Meet on Violence

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, said Assad may be a war criminal for his attacks on civilians. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian forces pounded towns where opposition is concentrated as United Nations officials prepared to discuss ways of bringing a halt to almost a year of violence.

President Bashar al-Assad has come under mounting international pressure to stop the killings. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan, the new UN special envoy to Syria, will meet later today in New York to discuss the violence. More than 7,500 civilians died since the uprising began in March, according to UN estimates.

The army has been shelling the central city of Homs since the beginning of the month as well as launching attacks on other parts of the country, including Idlib in the north and towns near Aleppo by the Turkish border. Some soldiers have defected from Assad’s forces as the president seeks to reaffirm his mandate as Syria’s leader following a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution.

The poll was “too little, too late,” Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said by e-mail. “The leaders of the Syrian revolution are unwilling to accept any measures that will leave President Assad in power and his security forces in charge of Syria.”

The European Union dismissed the vote’s validity and said Feb. 27 it would tighten sanctions on the Syrian government, freezing the central bank’s assets, banning precious-metals trading with the country and prohibiting cargo-only flights. The measures build on an oil embargo approved in September. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is campaigning for re-election, said France would press Russia and China to drop their opposition to UN sanctions against Syria.

Attacks Intensified

Syria’s army has intensified attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China on Feb. 4. At least 60 people died in army assaults yesterday and the 138 were killed the previous day, Al Arabiya television reported.

“We have asked the Syrian government and relevant parties to stop all violent actions to allow for the recovery of stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said today, calling on Assad to heed popular demands for reform.

Tunisia is ready to grant Assad and his family asylum “if this proposal will contribute to stop the bloodshed and end the killing of Syrians,” a spokesman for the north African nation’s presidency, Adnen Mnasser, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

Referendum Boycott

The Syrian president issued a decree yesterday, enacting the new constitution backed by 89 percent of the voters, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. The charter promises democratic elections while limiting presidents to two seven-year terms. The opposition boycotted the referendum, in which 57.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Assad’s forces shelled the besieged town of Rastan, killing and wounding an unspecified number of people, while also targeting the Khalidiyeh neighborhood and Baba Amr district of Homs, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today. About 37 soldiers defected and crossed into Turkey, Al Jazeera television reported, adding to the 60 people who ran away from Assad’s forces yesterday.

In New York, UN Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council that “credible reports” put the daily death toll at more than 100 civilians a day.

“My office has received disturbing reports of a rapidly deteriorating human-rights and humanitarian situation,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday. “Syrian military and security forces have launched massive campaigns of arrest, arbitrarily detaining thousands of protesters, as well as activists and others suspected of anti-government activities.”

‘Unhindered’ Access

Pillay called on Assad to cooperate with the international community, provide “unhindered” access to Syria and release all political and arbitrary detainees. Referring Syria to the International Criminal Court to stop the violence “will be a step in the right direction,” she said.

Faisal Khabbaz Hamwi, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, left the Geneva meeting after making a speech in which he said the session was aimed at attacking his country under the pretext of humanitarian needs.

To contact the reporters on this story: Emre Peker in Ankara at epeker2@bloomberg.net; Nayla Razzouk in Dubai at nrazzouk2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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