Defiant Syria presses crackdown

Banias has been a focal point for protests over the last week (AFP)

Syrian security forces and unidentified gunmen killed at least 19 civilians on Wednesday, as authorities pressed a deadly crackdown on protest hubs across the country, human rights activists said.

Among the dead was an eight-year-old boy, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, Ammar Qurabi, told AFP.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc will look at fresh sanctions this week against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime after already homing in on his inner circle.

In the face of the persistent violence the UN agency for Palestinian refugees suspended operations for 50,000 people in central and southern Syria, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for an end to "excessive force."

Sniper fire killed 13 people, including the youngster, in the village of Al-Harra, near the protest centre of Daraa, south of Damascus, Qurabi said.

Tank fire killed five people in the Baba Amr district on the outskirts of the central industrial city of Homs. Another civilian died in Jassem, near Daraa, he added.

Two soldiers were killed and five others wounded in clashes with "armed terrorist gangs" in the protest hubs of Homs and Daraa, state news agency SANA reported.

The deadly confrontations occurred as troops and security forces "arrested dozens of wanted men and seized large quantities of weapons and ammunition in the Bab Amr neighbourhood of Homs" and in Daraa.

Earlier, a human rights activist said shelling and automatic weapons fire had rocked Homs, Syria's third largest city.

"This operation terrified residents and security agents took part in looting," human rights activist Najati Tayara told AFP, adding that 50 tanks rolled into the Sittin neighbourhood.

Another activist spoke of "bodies sprawled on the streets in Bab Amr," adding that "no one dares retrieve them because of the snipers and the security forces."

The army also kept up its sweep of the flashpoint Mediterranean town of Banias, scouting for "protest organisers yet to be arrested," said Rami Abdul Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"A tank has been stationed since Tuesday night on the square where Banias demonstrations are held," he said, adding that the northern town remained encircled by the army after weekend arrests put some 450 people behind bars.

He said 270 individuals released after the arrest campaign had "signed an agreement to stop demonstrating" and that many of them had been "struck violently and insulted" by security forces.

Abdul Rahman also reported that one person died Wednesday in Banias of injuries sustained on Saturday.

Thousands of students demonstrated in Syria's second-largest city Aleppo before being dispsersed by baton-wielding loyalist counter-demonstrators and security force personnel, a human rights activist said.

For almost two months, protests have railed against Assad's regime, while troops and security forces have brutally repressed the uprising.

Between 600 and 700 people have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested since the start of the protest movement in mid-March, human rights groups say.

The government said it formed a commission to draft within two weeks a new law to govern general elections that meets "international criteria," SANA reported.

"Our goal is to draw up an electoral law that is similar to the best laws across the world," said Deputy Justice Minister Najm al-Ahmad.

Protesters are demanding free elections, the release of political prisoners, constitutional changes that would strip the ruling Baath party of its hegemony over Syria as well as new media and political parties laws.

Last month, under pressure from the international community, Assad lifted nearly five decades years of emergency rule but the heavy-handed crackdown on pro-reform protesters has continued unabated.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Assad to listen to his people.

"I urge again President Assad to heed calls for reform and freedom and to desist from excessive force and mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators," Ban said in Geneva.

The EU's Ashton warned that new European sanctions could target Assad, after measures against the regime took effect on Tuesday with the president's younger brother heading a list of 13 officials targeted for their involvement in the brutal crackdown.

"We started with 13 people who were directly involved" in cracking down on protests, she told European MPs pressing her to explain why Assad was spared.

"We'll look at it again this week," she added. "I assure you that my intention is to put the maximum political pressure that we can on Syria."

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