Syrian opposition calls general strike, crackdown continues
(DAMASCUS) - The United States and the European Union said on Tuesday the international community was planning further sanctions against Syria over its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests, as the opposition called for a general strike.
At the same time, France said the UN Security Council is close to achieving a majority for a resolution to condemn the crackdown.
"We will be taking additional steps in the days ahead," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington, when asked if recent events raised the bar for taking Syria to the international court or the UN Security Council.
European Union diplomacy chief Catherine Ashton also said the situation was "extremely alarming."
"I'm very worried about what's happened in the last few days," Ashton said.
She was referring to the mounting death toll in Syria where more than 850 people, including women and children, have been killed in the unrest and at least 8,000 arrested, according to rights groups.
Both the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on members of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle but they have stopped short of targeting him personally.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said it appeared that a majority of nine of the UN Security Council's 15 members were being assembled to vote for a resolution condemning Syria.
"There is still the threat of a veto by Moscow and Beijing," two of the five permanent members who have the power to block resolutions, he added.
France has called for Assad to be specifically targeted by sanctions.
The prospect of further sanctions on the authoritarian regime came amid calls by the opposition for a general strike on Wednesday and as conflicting reports emerged on the existence of a mass grave in the flashpoint southern town of Daraa.
"Wednesday will be a day of punishment for the regime by the revolutionaries and the people of free will," said a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution 2011, an Internet-based opposition group that has been a motor of the protests that erupted two months ago.
"Let's transform this Wednesday into a Friday (the regular day for protests), with mass protests, no schools, no universities, no stores or restaurants open and even no taxis."
The strike call came as authorities denied reports that a mass grave had been found in Daraa, while acknowledging that five bodies were discovered there on Sunday.
"This information is totally false," an interior ministry official told state news agency SANA, referring to the alleged mass grave.
"These reports are part of a campaign of incitement and lies against Syria," the official added.
SANA, quoting a local official in Daraa, said five bodies had been discovered in the town on Sunday. It did not say how the bodies were found or how the victims died.
But rights activist Ammar Qurabi maintained his earlier account of a mass grave containing 24 bodies discovered at the weekend in Daraa.
He said that grave was different than the one where the five bodies -- a man and his five sons -- were recovered by authorities.
"Two mass graves were found on Sunday on two hilltops in close proximity of each other," Qurabi told AFP by telephone. "One contained 24 corpses and the other seven corpses, including the five mentioned by authorities as well as an unidentified woman and her child."
Journalists have been prevented from traveling in the country to verify such reports or to cover the protests.
The regime has blamed the violence on "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.
Security forces in recent days have focused their crackdown on the western town of Tall Kalakh, where residents were reporting corpses and dozens of wounded in the streets.
"It looks like a ghost town here, I can see a corpse lying at the entrance of the town and there are dozens of wounded that we cannot evacuate," said a Sunni Muslim resident Tuesday, reached by telephone.
"This is a massacre," he added, his voice charged with emotion. "We never expected them to be so brutal.
"They are pushing for sectarian strife."
Syria's minority Alawites, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, form the backbone of Assad's regime. The majority of the country's 22-million population are Sunni.
Also Tuesday, an activist told AFP that a leading opposition figure, Anas al-Shughri, had been arrested in the coastal city of Banias.
"Anas al-Shughri was arrested at dawn on Sunday by security forces who raided his hiding place in the suburbs of Banias," said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"We urge authorities to release him along with other militants and peaceful protesters detained," he said, adding that several other people were arrested at the same time as Shughri.
Security forces in recent weeks have been hunting down opposition figures and activists in their bid to quell the unrest posing the greatest challenge to nearly five decades of rule by the Baath party.
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