Daraa in grip of Syria troops as more deaths reported

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DAMASCUS: Syrian troops tightened their grip on Daraa Wednesday as the global community raised alarm over the military assault on the restive town which according to rights activists has claimed at least 30 lives.

A militant in Daraa, the epicenter of pro-democracy protests in southern Syria, said security forces shot dead at least six people on Tuesday after killing at least 25 when they rolled into the town the previous day, backed by tanks and snipers.

The Daraa assault came four days after President Bashar Al-Assad scrapped nearly five decades of draconian emergency rule and abolished the repressive state security court as he faced growing dissent and calls for reform.

The army said troops entered Daraa "in response to calls for help" from citizens to rid them of "extremist terrorist groups" behind a spate of killings and sabotage.

Late on Tuesday, the state news agency SANA reported the army "continued to chase armed groups and extremists in Daraa who attacked military positions, cut off roads and forced passers-by to stop so they could hit them."

Western nations, human rights groups have raised alarm over the assault, while the United Nations condemned the crackdown aimed at crushing the protests which have shaken Damascus and Assad’s autocratic rule.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was watching events in Syria "with increasingly grave concern," after briefing the 15-nation Security Council about the crisis in the Arab world on Tuesday.

"I condemn, utterly, the continuing violence against peaceful demonstrators, most particularly the use of tanks and live fire that have killed and injured hundreds of people," he added.

As the Daraa crackdown rages, Security Council nations are discussing a statement proposed by four European powers who want to condemn deadly violence against protesters in Syria.

But the United States said that for now it will limit its response to the violent crackdown to diplomacy and possible sanctions.

Britain and France have made calls for "strong" action against the violence by Assad’s forces.

Whether a statement is agreed will depend on the attitude of Russia and China, which traditionally resist initiatives they see as interfering in a country’s internal affairs.

China’s ambassador Li Baodong said he would "push for a political solution" in Syria.

"We are going to study the draft elements very seriously," he told reporters.

But Arab leaders continue to hold back their reaction on the Syrian uprising, say analysts.

"They (Arab neighbors) don’t want any radical change that would make Syria a democratic society and that (democracy) itself would obviously be a greater threat to them than any policies of the Baathist regime," said Maha Azzam, associate fellow at the British think-tank, Chatham House.

Amnesty International called for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, while UN rights chief Navi Pillay was invited to visit Damascus, a spokesman said, urging authorities to probe the killing of protesters.

"Syrian security forces fired on unarmed protesters, killing 400 people at least since the revolution erupted in March," the Syrian Human Rights Organization said in a statement.

"This barbaric behavior is aimed at keeping the regime in place at the expense of civilians who are killed… The Security Council must convene rapidly to stop the bloodshed."

British Defense Minister Liam Fox said Tuesday there were "practical limitations" to any foreign intervention in Syria, despite NATO taking military action in Libya under similar conditions.

Asked why Western governments had backed armed intervention to protect civilian lives in Libya but not in Syria, Fox said "there are limitations to what we can do."

Farther north in the protest hub of Banias, thousands took to the streets on Tuesday, chanting "freedom, freedom."

Security forces also deployed in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma where they set up identity checkpoints, a witness told AFP. By Tuesday afternoon, Douma had become a "ghost town," one resident told AFP by telephone.

Security forces arrested three doctors from Douma’s Hamdan hospital and forced patients to leave, even those in intensive care, witnesses said.

Around 400 people have been killed countrywide in the crackdown, according to figures compiled by human rights groups.

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