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Syria bloodletting spurs new Arab warning | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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DAMASCUS, (AFP) – Clashes between Syrian troops and suspected deserters have reportedly killed 17 soldiers, a rights group said on Saturday, as Arab foreign ministers condemned the murder of dozens of civilians during anti-regime protests.

The latest civilian bloodletting came on Friday as worshippers emerging from weekly Muslim prayers swarmed streets in the central protest hub of Homs and other towns urging a Libya-style no-fly zone to protect civilians and encourage army deserters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed at least 36 people and reported that at least 17 Syrian soldiers were killed later in overnight clashes between troops and suspected deserters in Homs.

An activist on the ground quoted by the Observatory said “more than 40 people were killed or wounded and two armoured vehicles destroyed” in the fighting in Bab al-Sebaa district after an officer and dozens of soldiers defected.

There was more bloodshed on Saturday when three civilians were killed and several wounded by gunfire from Syrian forces in the restive Homs neighbourhoods of Baba Amr and Deir Balaa, the Observatory said.

Friday’s violence prompted a new stern warning from the foreign ministers of the 22-strong Arab League which called on member Syria to stop the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

“The Arab ministerial committee expressed its rejection of the continued killings of civilians in Syria and expressed its hope that the Syrian government will take the necessary measures to protect them,” they said in a statement.

An Arab League ministerial committee on Syria met on Wednesday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a bid to spur a dialogue between him and the opposition.

The task force is due to meet with Syrian officials on Sunday in Qatar to try to reach “serious results and an exit to the Syrian crisis,” the Arab League said.

Most of Friday’s killings took place in Homs and in Hama, in the north, as Syrian security forces encircled mosques to prevent anti-regime demonstrations and fired live rounds on protesters, the Observatory said.

More than 100 people were wounded and 500 were arrested, it said.

Hama and Homs are at the front line of the anti-regime protests that have rocked Syria since mid-March, since when the UN estimates more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.

The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP in Nicosia that Homs had seen the “highest number of martyrs to date” since the protest movement unfolded, accounting for 40 percent of protesters’ deaths.

The latest violence was the deadliest in nearly six months to occur on a Friday, the day worshippers emerging from weekly prayers at mosques defy the security forces and swarm the streets to rally against the regime.

The worst day’s violence was on April 22, when the toll reached 72.

Each Friday protesters rally around a theme.

This time they demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians and to encourage soldiers to defect — like the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya that helped topple dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

“We call on the international community to impose a no-fly zone so that the Syrian Free Army can function with greater freedom,” the Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the main movers behind the dissent, said on its Facebook page.

A defecting army officer who has taken refuge in Turkey, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, claimed in July to have established an opposition armed force called the “Syrian Free Army,” but its strength and numbers are unknown.

Meanwhile the US firm Blue Coat Systems which specialises in Internet censoring equipment on Friday confirmed that Syria was using its products to block web activity.

And a Syrian-born US citizen Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, pleaded not guilty in a US court Friday to charges he had spied on anti-Assad protesters for Syrian intelligence. He was remanded in custody for trial on March 5.