BEIRUT: Bahrain and Kuwait joined the international chorus of condemnation against President Bashar Assad’s regime Monday, pulling out their ambassadors as a besieged Syrian city came under fresh artillery fire. Jordan also described the escalation violence by the Assad regime as “disturbing.”Assad, meanwhile, replaced his defense minister with the army chief of staff even as the crackdown on a five-month uprising continued.Gen. Ali Habib, the country’s defense minister since 2009, was removed from his post because of health problems, the SANA report said, but some analysts said the general was unhappy with the crackdown.He was replaced by Gen. Dawoud Rajha, a 64-year-old Christian, SANA said. The agency did not say who will succeed Rajha as chief of staff. His deputy is Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, who is married to Assad’s sister, Bushra.The army has played a leading role in the bloody crackdown, shelling cities with heavy weapons and tanks.On Monday, the military renewed its assault on Deir Al-Zour, unleashing artillery fire on the eastern town, a day after at least 42 people were killed there. And in the southern city of Deraa, security forces killed at least three people at a funeral, activists said.
The bloodshed has drawn sharp condemnation from the West and the Arab states. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah ordered the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador from Damascus early Monday and told President Bashar Assad to “stop the killing machine and the bloodshed … before it is too late.” The king also urged the Syrian government to introduce “comprehensive and quick reforms.”Kuwait followed suit with Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Sabah announcing that the Gulf state was also recalling its envoy from Damascus. He also slammed the “bloodshed” in Syria.Neighboring Bahrain also took the same action. Sheikh Mohammed said that foreign ministers of the six-nation GCC would meet soon to discuss the crisis in Syria.
The top Sunni Muslim authority called for an end to the “tragedy” in Syria, with the head of the Cairo-based institution saying the situation has gone too far.“Al-Azhar was patient for a long time and avoided talking about the situation in Syria because of its sensitive nature … but the situation has gone too far and there is no other solution but to put an end to this Arab and Islamic tragedy,” the grand mufti of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, said in a statement.Al-Azhar “asks Syrian leaders to work immediately to end the bloodshed and to respond favorably to the legitimate demands of the Syrian masses,” said the statement carried by the official Egyptian news agency MENA.
The US State Department said it was “heartened” by Arab condemnation of Syria, calling the moves a further sign that the international community is repulsed by Assad’s actions.Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh was quoted by the official Petra News Agency on Monday describing the escalation in violence by the Assad regime as “disturbing.” He urged Damascus to follow through on promised reforms.The international community already has imposed sanctions on the regime — including on Habib and Rajha — and demanded an immediate end to the attacks. France, Italy and Germany renewed their condemnation Monday.
Despite the widening condemnations, Syrian troops on Monday continued their assault in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, about 280 miles (450 kilometers) east of the capital Damascus. Machine-gun fire and artillery blasts resumed early Monday, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, which help organize the protests and track the uprising.“We heard very loud explosions, and now there’s intermittent gunfire,” an activist in the city said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said people were too terrified to take the wounded to government hospitals, instead treating them at home or in makeshift hospitals.
Deir el-Zour is in an oil-rich but largely impoverished region of Syria known for its well-armed clans and tribes whose ties extend across eastern Syrian and into Iraq. At least 42 people were killed Sunday in a pre-dawn raid, 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.Syrian troops also stormed Maaret Al-Numan in the northern province of Idlib at dawn, activists said.“Forces entered the city from its eastern side and they are preventing the residents from entering or leaving the city,” the LCC said in a statement.
More than 300 people have died in the past week, the bloodiest in the five-month uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule.The government 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 central city of Hama had been the focus of the crackdown for most of the week. Reporters were taken on a tour of the government-run Hama National Hospital on Sunday night and shown the remains of 16 people, some decomposing.
On Monday, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA, said the army began withdrawing from Hama as life began to return to normal in the city. It said the army’s operation in the city aimed to “protect civilians.”Dr. Mohammed Al-Omar said most of the bodies in the hospital were members of the Syrian security forces who were killed by armed groups. He didn’t elaborate on how he had gathered this information.“There are gunshot wounds mostly on their necks, also on the chest. We now have 17 bodies in the hospital,” Al-Omar told reporters as an unidentified member of the security services stood closely behind him.
Condemnation of the Syrian government spread to the Internet, where the hacking group known as Anonymous claimed credit for vandalizing the Syrian military’s website. The site quickly became unavailable, but screenshots circulated online showed the group’s trademark headless suit and a message addressed to the Syrian people saying that “the world stands with you against the brutal regime.”Assad has shrugged off months of criticism and sanctions, blaming armed gangs for the violence while offering reform measures that have failed to placate the protesters demanding sweeping changes. – Arabnews