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Arab League breaks its silence and condemns Assad's massacre of protesters; journalists disappear

The port city of Latakia is under siege this week as the President's regime continues its war against dissenting Syrians
The port city of Latakia is under siege this week as the President's regime continues its war against dissenting Syrians

Reuters

As both the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League demand that the Syrian regime end its bloody crackdown on protesters, security forces are continuing their brutal assault, report Human Rights Watch and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). In defiance of international demands, President Bashar al-Assad's aggressive military push to annihilate protests during the holy month of Ramadan has killed 40 people in the Syrian port city of Latakia in the past week. The regime is also abducting dissident journalists and bloggers as it continues its war on information, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The Arab League, which includes all 22 Arab countries, finally spoke out on Syria and called on the regime to stop the repression of protests in a statement issued by its secretary general on 7 August. The league's position began to change last week when Gulf Cooperation Council members Kuwait and Qatar criticised the ongoing brutality by Syrian security forces. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Damascus but did not condemn the Syrian government's actions. Bahrain also withdrew its ambassador.

But the Arab League did not suggest any specific actions. In a letter, Human Rights Watch is urging the Arab League's secretary general to convene an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the league's member states. The letter asks the league to lean on Assad's regime to permit unhindered access to the country for international humanitarian agencies and workers, a UN-mandated fact-finding committee, and independent observers and journalists.

"Syria's people, at this time of severe oppression, deserve to have their voices heard," said Human Rights Watch. Secretary general Nabil al-Arabi and the Arab League "shouldn't limit themselves to words of concern when Syrian tanks are gunning down protesters in the streets."

The UN Security Council's 3 August statement called on Syria to cooperate fully with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which has been investigating the abuses in Syria.

But since the UN statement, Syrian forces have stormed the cities of Deir al-Zor, Daraa, Saraqeb, Hoola, and Maaret al-Nu`man, and intensified their crackdown in Hama. At least 100 people were killed in the siege on Hama, which started on 31 July, with water, electricity and communication lines cut as tanks rolled into the centre of town on 3 August.

Forces have killed at least 231 anti-government protesters since 1 August, bringing the total number of civilians killed by the government since mid-March to about 2,000, says Human Rights Watch.

In Latakia this past week, tanks fired at poor Sunni Muslim districts, say news reports. Security forces then carried out large-scale arrests in the city's neighbourhoods. The assault has also forced thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee the port city.

ANHRI has urged the international community to pressure Syrian authorities, and save civilians from a regime that has lost its legitimacy as it responds to peaceful expressions of dissent with bullets.

Local human rights groups report that security forces have so far detained more than 10,000 activists, protesters, and even bystanders. Evidence of systematic and extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture by Syrian security forces point to crimes against humanity, says Human Rights Watch.

"We fear that Bashar Al-Assad's regime is locked into a repressive frenzy that has reached a point of no return," RSF said. "Isolated internationally, especially since the withdrawal of many Arab ambassadors and the increase in international community pressure, the authorities persist in censoring any discourse different from their own, jailing netizens and journalists who have witnessed violence against protesters."

According to RSF, Myriam Haddad, a woman reporter for the magazine "Mouqarabat", was kidnapped from Havana Café, in the centre of Damascus, on 11 August. The same day, journalist Sami Al-Halabi was severely beaten and arrested by intelligence officials. Blogger Jehad Jamal was imprisoned on 4 August, after already being jailed numerous times. Four other journalists were abducted by security agents on the morning of 4 August from a café in the southern Damascus suburb of Jaramana.

IFEX members have been reporting on the growing number of journalists and bloggers detained, tortured or disappeared. Individuals have been abducted on their way to work, arrested at security checkpoints, taken from cafés or arrested for covering demonstrations.

In a separate strategy to pressure the Assad regime, both Freedom House and Human Rights Watch are calling for sanctions on Syria's oil and gas sectors, and for the European Union (EU) to freeze the assets of Syrian oil and gas companies, in order to tie lifting of the sanctions with an end to the use of excessive and lethal force against peaceful demonstrators. The EU has already frozen the assets of 35 Syrian officials and four entities in response to Syria's rights abuses. Syrian activists have also called on Canada and other countries which trade with Syria to impose sanctions.

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