AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian forces shot dead 20 protesters on Friday despite a pledge by President Bashar al-Assad that a crackdown was over, activists said as thousands marched across Syria, spurred on by U.S. and European calls for him to step down.
Most of the violence was in the southern province of Deraa where the uprising against Assad erupted in March, triggering a harsh response in which U.N. investigators say Syrian forces may have committed crimes against humanity.
“Bye-bye Bashar; See you in The Hague,” chanted protesters in the central city of Homs, waving their shoes in a gesture of contempt. “We want revenge against Maher and Bashar,” shouted others, referring to the Syria leader and his powerful brother.
“The people want the execution of the president,” shouted a crowd in northern Idlib province, reflecting deepening antipathy to the 45-year-old Assad. Some carried banners with slogans proclaiming “Signs of Victory.”
Local activist Abdallah Aba Zaid said 18 people were killed in Deraa province, including eight in the town of Ghabaghab, five in Hirak, four in Inkhil and one in Nawa. Dozens of people were wounded, he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two people were also killed in the Bab Amro district of Homs.
Assad, from the minority Alawite sect in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation, told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that military and police operations had stopped. But activists say his forces are still shooting at protesters.
“Maybe Bashar al-Assad does not regard police as security forces,” said a witness in Hama, where security forces fired machineguns late on Thursday to prevent a night-time protest.
Syrian state television said the deaths in Ghabaghab were caused by gunmen who attacked a police post, killing a policeman and a civilian and wounding two others. It said two members of the security forces and one gunman were killed in a clash in Harasta, near Damascus.
Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports of violence in which the United Nations says 2,000 civilians have been killed. Authorities blame terrorists and extremists for the bloodshed and say 500 soldiers and police have been killed.
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Internet footage of Friday’s protests suggested that although widespread they were smaller than at their peak in July, before Assad sent tanks and troops into several cities.
A doctor in Zabadani, 30 km (20 miles) northeast of Damascus, said army vehicles were in the town and snipers were on rooftops to prevent crowds marching.
Protesters from the Sunni majority resent the power and wealth amassed by some Alawites, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. They want Assad to quit, the dismantling of the security apparatus and the introduction of sweeping reforms.
The violent repression prompted coordinated calls from the United States and European Union on Thursday for Assad to step down and Washington imposed sweeping new sanctions on Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon and Iraq and is an ally of Iran.
On Friday, European Union states agreed to expand the number of Syrian officials and institutions targeted by EU sanctions and laid out plans for a possible oil embargo. Syria exports over a third of its 385,000 barrels per day output to Europe.
The shape of a post-Assad Syria is unclear, although the disparate opposition, persecuted for decades, has gained a fresh sense of purpose as popular disaffection has spread.
President Barack Obama froze Syrian state assets in the United States, banned U.S. citizens from operating or investing in Syria and prohibited U.S. imports of Syrian oil products.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people.”
Adding to international pressure, U.N. investigators said Assad’s forces had committed violations that may amount to crimes against humanity. The United Nations plans to send a team to Syria on Saturday to assess the humanitarian situation.
The United States, Britain and European allies say they will draft a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria.
But Russia, which has resisted Western calls for U.N. sanctions, said on Friday it also opposed calls for Assad to step down and believed he needs time to implement reforms.
“We do not support such calls and believe that it is necessary now to give President Assad’s regime time to realize all the reform processes that have been announced,” Interfax news agency quoted a foreign ministry source as saying.
Despite the dramatic sharpening of Western rhetoric, there is no threat of Western military action like that against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, meaning Assad’s conflict with his opponents seems likely to grind on in the streets.
It may also take time for the diplomatic broadside, backed by the new sanctions, to have an impact on the president who took power when his father, Hafez al-Assad, died 11 years ago after three decades in office.
Assad has so far brushed off international pressure and survived years of U.S. and European isolation following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, a killing many Western nations held Damascus responsible for.
But Syria’s economy, already hit by a collapse in tourism revenue, could be further damaged by Obama’s announcement. U.S. sanctions will make it very difficult for banks to finance transactions involving Syrian oil exports.
It will make it also challenging for companies with a large U.S. presence, such as Shell, to continue producing crude in Syria — although the impact on global oil markets from a potential shutdown of Syria’s oil industry would be small compared to that of Libya.
Assad says the protests are a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and said last week his army would “not relent in pursuing terrorist groups.”
U.N. investigators said on Thursday Syrian forces had fired on peaceful protesters, often at short range. Their wounds were “consistent with an apparent shoot-to-kill policy.”