Medvedev tells Syrian leader: Reform or go

Syrian forces killed at least eight people when they opened fire to disperse protests against President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Damascus and Homs, activists said, and Russia’s president urged him to undertake reforms or step down.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said three died in the Damascus suburb of Douma, one in Zabadani near the Lebanese border and four in Bab Sbaa, a district in the central city of Homs.

At least 25 people were wounded, he said, in the latest round in almost seven months of demonstrations seeking more political freedoms. Al-Assad has held autocratic power for 11 years and his late father for three decades before that.

Activists said protesters also came under fire in the eastern tribal region of Deir al-Zor on the border with Iraq and in the city of Hama.

Video footage showed protesters holding banners urging the international community to protect civilians.

Some chanted, “Syria, Assad is a germ here,” and, “We do not love you [Al-Assad]. Leave, you and your party.”

An activist told Al-Jazeera television that protesters had burned the flags of Russia and China for blocking a European-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution urging Syria to end its six-month crackdown on protesters.

In the east of the country four gunmen shot dead prominent Kurdish opposition figure Mishaal al-Tammo and wounded his son, Abdel-Rahman said.

It was not clear who was behind the attack. Tammo, a charismatic figure who was released from jail earlier this year, was a critic of Al-Assad who had also angered powerful Kurdish parties because of his criticism of Kurdish rivals.

The United States condemned Tammo’s killing and other violence, with the White House press secretary saying in a statement:

“Today’s attacks demonstrate the Syrian regime’s latest attempts to shut down peaceful opposition inside Syria. President Assad must step down now before taking his country further down this very dangerous path.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Friday Syrian leaders should relinquish power if they could not carry out promised reforms, but that Western states had no right to intervene, the state-run Russian news agency RIA reported.

“We are using our channels and are actively working with the Syrian leadership. We are demanding that the Syrian leadership implement the necessary reforms,” Medvedev said.

“If the Syrian leadership is incapable of conducting such reforms, it will have to go, but this decision should be taken not in Nato or certain European countries. It should be taken by the Syrian people and the Syrian leadership.”

The remarks were Medvedev’s bluntest warning yet to Al-Assad, whose country has historically close ties with Moscow, one of its main arms suppliers, and hosts a Russian naval maintenance facility on its Mediterranean coast.

Red line
Russia has warned it will oppose almost any UN resolution condemning Al-Assad. It refrained from using its Security Council veto in March to obstruct Nato air strikes in Libya, but Syria appears to be a red line for Moscow.

While Al-Assad has sent troops and tanks to crush protests, he has also pledged reforms. He has ended a state of emergency and given citizenship to tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds. He has also promised a parliamentary election in February.

Many of Al-Assad’s opponents say his reform promises are hollow and that his government has forfeited all legitimacy after killing at least 2 900 civilians, by a UN count.

Syria accuses foreign powers of arming demonstrators and blames violence on armed groups. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the UN Human Rights Council on Friday that more than 1 100 security personnel had been killed in the unrest.

“I would like to assure the international community that those who committed violations of human rights will be held to account,” he told reporters in Geneva. He denied allegations loyalist forces shot soldiers refusing to fire on protesters.

Riad al-As’aad, the most senior officer to defect from Syria’s armed forces, said there was no option but to topple Al-Assad by force.

As’aad, now living under Turkish government protection in Hatay province on the Syrian border, said about 15 000 soldiers, including officers, had already deserted, and he was waiting to move his command inside Syria. – Reuters

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