Syrian security forces shot dead at least 20 people on Friday as they opened fire to disperse protesters urging countries to expel Syria’s ambassadors, activists told Al Arabiya, as Russia called for restraint over the Damascus crisis.
Meanwhile, state television reported that a bomb blast in the restive central city of Hama killed three members of the security forces and critically wounded an officer, while state news agency SANA said two died.
The latest bloodletting comes on the eve of a deadline by the Arab League for Syria to stop the lethal crackdown on protesters seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or face sanctions.
Meanwhile, Syria has asked for amendments to a plan to send Arab League observers to Syria to assess the situation there where troops are cracking down on anti-government protests, the League chief said on Friday.
The Syrian request is being studied, the League said.
League chief Nabil al-Araby said in a statement he had received a letter from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem “including amendments to the draft protocol regarding the legal status and duties of the monitoring mission of the Arab League to Syria” agreed by a League ministerial council on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
“These amendments are now under study,” the statement quoted Araby as saying.
He said the Syrian request was made in a letter received on Thursday evening.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Friday that three people were killed in the Damascus countryside, while two were shot in the central protest city of Homs and another in the restive city of Hama, also in the center of the country.
Five people, including a 14-year-old boy, were also shot dead in the southern town of Deraa, cradle of the uprising against Assad’s autocratic regime, said the Britain-based Observatory.
Around 30 people were shot and wounded in Homs, in the Damascus suburb of Harasta and in Maaret Numan in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Observatory and the opposition Local Coordination Committees (LCC) reported, according to AFP.
Massive deployments of security forces
Activists reported massive deployments of security forces in several parts of the country and said they had surrounded mosques to prevent worshippers from spilling onto the streets after the weekly Muslim prayers to join protests.
They opened fire as several rallies got under way in defiance of the authorities, in Homs, Deraa and in several areas of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, they said.
In the Idlib town of al-Tah, protesters flooded the streets calling for the fall of the regime and chanting: “Freedom forever, like it or not Assad.”
The Observatory also reported that 16 people were arrested in raids by security forces in Maaret Numan.
SANA news also reported that only two members of the security forces were killed in the Hama blast and said five others were wounded when gunmen opened fire on them in Deraa.
The agency also said a bomb squad disabled a bomb set to explode in the city.
Activists had called for massive protests on Friday to press countries to expel Syrian ambassadors and further isolate Damascus, which is faced with Western and Arab sanctions.
“They are the ambassadors of crime. Expel them, O free ones,” the Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the main groups behind the protests, said on its Facebook page.
Another umbrella group of activists, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, also called for nationwide protests “until the regime falls.”
Counter-rallies were held in some parts of Damascus, SANA reported, with people taking to the streets to protest against Arab pressure on Syria and foreign intervention in domestic affairs.
Meanwhile the LCC reported that the SANA director in Deir Ezzor, Alaa al-Khodr, “resigned in protest over the regime's actions towards civilians.”
“Khodr taped his mouth shut and wore a sign that said: ‘I am a Syrian journalist’,” the LCC said in a statement received in Nicosia.
But SANA denied the report saying Khodr had quit for a university job five months ago.
Calling for restraint and caution
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, called for restraint over the Syria crisis, after talks with his French counterpart who accused President Assad of being deaf to pressure.
“We are calling for restraint and caution. This is our position,” Putin told a news conference, the day after his foreign minister had likened the situation in Syria to a civil war.
Russia has accused the Syrian opposition of stoking the unrest in the country, a position that has irked the West which wants Moscow to join unequivocal international pressure against Assad.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon issued a sterner statement against Damascus, saying Assad was ignoring international calls for reforms and an end to the lethal crackdown on demonstrators.
“We consider that the situation is becoming more and more dramatic. Bashar al-Assad has stayed deaf to the calls of the international community and has not followed up reform promises and the massacres are continuing,” Fillon said, according to AFP.
“We think that it is indispensable to increase international pressure and we have tabled a resolution at the United Nations. We hope it will find as wide support as possible,” he added.
Diplomats from Germany, France and Britain tabled a resolution condemning human rights abuses by the Syrian government at the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee on Thursday for a vote expected next Tuesday, officials said.
Success could increase pressure on the U.N. Security Council to act over the Syria crisis. Russia and China last month vetoed a council resolution condemning the deadly crackdown by Assad’s forces.
Putin’s call for restraint came after he was asked by a reporter whether Russia would support a U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian regime, but it was unclear if his answer referred directly to this.
But Putin emphasized that Russia was ready to work with the international community.
“We are not intending to neglect the opinion of our partners and we will cooperate with everyone,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday the attack by Syrian army defectors on a Damascus military intelligence base this week resembled a civil war and urged the world to pressure the opposition as well as the regime.