Syria intensifies crackdown; activists say 59 dead

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops fired on mourners at a funeral and raided an eastern city Sunday, killing at least 59 people in an intensifying government crackdown on protesters. Outrage was intensifying as well: Syria's Arab neighbors forcefully joined the international chorus of condemnation against President Bashar Assad's regime for the first time.

Even the king of Saudi Arabia — whose country does not tolerate dissent and lent its military troops to repress anti-government protests in neighboring Bahrain — harshly criticized the Syrian government and said he was recalling his ambassador in Damascus for consultations.

More than 300 people have died in the past week, the bloodiest in the five-month uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule. Not all were killed by bullets or tank shells: In the besieged city of Hama, where the government has cut off electricity and communications, a rights group said eight babies died because their incubators lost power.

Sunday's worst violence was in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where at least 42 people were killed.

"The city was bombed by all types of heavy weapons and machine gun fire before troops started entering," an activist in the city said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"Humanitarian conditions in the city are very bad because it has been under siege for nine days," the activist said. "There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food and gasoline. The city is totally paralyzed."

The government's crackdown on mostly peaceful, unarmed protesters demanding political reforms and an end to the Assad family's 40-year rule has left more than 1,700 dead since March, according to activists and human rights groups. Assad's regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, which at times has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.

The regime intensified the crackdown a week ago on the eve of Ramadan, the holy month in which many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, then eat festive meals and gather in mosques for special nightly prayers. The government has been trying to prevent the large mosque gatherings from turning into more anti-government protests.

After sunset Sunday, thousands of people poured into the streets in areas around Syria, including the capital Damascus and its suburbs, the village of Dael in the south, the central city of Homs, Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and northern city of Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group of activists tracking the Syrian uprising. There were reports of shootings but no immediate word on casualties, according to the LCC.

Syria's crackdown had already drawn criticism and sanctions from the U.S. and many other nations, but the latest attacks brought a new wave of condemnation. Saudi King Abdullah demanded "an end to the killing machine and bloodshed."

"Any sane Arab, Muslim or anyone else knows that this has nothing to do with religion, or ethics or morals; Spilling the blood of the innocent for any reasons or pretext leads to no path to ... hope," the king said in a statement.

Abdullah accused the Syrian government of a disproportionate response, and said it must enact speedy and comprehensive reforms to avoid a future of chaos.

The 22-member Arab League, which had been silent since the uprising began, said Sunday it is "alarmed" by the situation in Syria and called for the immediate halt of all violence. On Saturday, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council criticized Syria's "use of excess force."

Turkey, which borders Syria and until recently was a close ally and a major trade partner, said Sunday it would send its foreign minister to Damascus on Tuesday to deliver a strong message against the crackdown. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's patience was running thin and that Turkey could not remain a bystander to the violence.

The statements signal that Arab states have lost patience with Assad and won't be silent anymore. Sectarian divisions also play a role: Saudi Arabia is the major Sunni power in the Middle East and Syria is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, which rules over a Sunni majority.

Assad has brushed off months of criticism and sanctions, blaming armed gangs for the violence, and his government's reaction to Turkey's criticism was quick.

State-run TV quoted Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban as saying that Turkey's foreign minister "will hear stronger words because of Turkey's stance that did not condemn until now the brutal killings of civilians, members of military and police."

In Deir el-Zour, about 280 miles (450 kilometers) east of the capital Damascus, troops stepped up a siege that had already been going on for days. A pre-dawn raid on the city killed at least 42 people Sunday, said Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, and Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

An activist in the city told The Associated Press that the military attacked from four sides and took control of eight neighborhoods.

Amateur video posted online by activists showed what they said were parts of Deir el-Zour with the sound of heavy cracks of gunfire and prayers blaring from loudspeakers. Another video showed Syrian troops on a hill as they positioned an anti-aircraft gun.

State-run Syrian TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying no tanks entered Deir el-Zour on Sunday and that troops were only removing barriers set by "terrorist groups at the entrances of the city."

The military offensive spread Sunday to the central town of Houleh in Homs province, some 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Damascus. Rihawi said at least 13 people were killed in Houleh while Qurabi said the toll was 17.

State TV said a military force was ambushed near Houleh leaving three officers dead and three wounded.

Both Houleh and Deir el-Zour have witnessed intense protests against Assad since the uprising began. Deir el-Zour is the capital of an oil-rich province by the same name, but the region is among the country's poorest and was hit by drought in the past years.

Qurabi said security forces on Sunday also shot and killed 10 people in the city of Idlib some 170 miles (270 kilometers) northwest of Damascus. He said those killed in Idlib were taking part in a funeral of eight protesters shot dead by security forces Saturday night.

Rihawi said four people were killed in Idlib during the funeral and so did the Local Coordination Committees.

"The number of martyrs this week is no less than 300," said Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso. "Since Ramadan began, military operations intensified and this increased the numbers of martyrs."

The central city of Hama had been the focus of the crackdown for most of the week. Electricity, Internet and phone lines have been cut for seven days, and residents have reported dwindling food and medical supplies amid frequent shelling and raids.

An official at Hourani Hospital in Hama reported that eight newborns died Wednesday in their incubators because of the lack of power, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The group had no further details. Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed.

A group of journalists, including an AP reporter and a photographer, were taken Sunday night for a tour in Hama but the trip was canceled when they reached the entrance of the city. On the southern entrance of the city, the streets were deserted and some roads had clear marks of burnt tires and debris.

The journalists were taken to a government-run hospital where they were shown the remains of 16 people. Dr. Mohammed al-Omar said most of them were members of security forces who were killed by members of armed groups.


Associated Press reporter Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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