UN ramps up pressure on Syria as death toll pass 2,000 mark

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier put the death toll from Friday's crackdown at 34.

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DAMASCUS // Tanks rumbled into the central Syrian city of Homs yesterday, a day after 34 anti-regime protesters were killed, activists said, adding urgency to a United Nations humanitarian mission.

The death toll rose again when two people were killed in Rastan, a town between Homs and Hama, as security forces opened fire to disperse a demonstration, an activist said.

Meanwhile, opponents of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, opened two days of talks in Istanbul to launch a "national council" to coordinate the fight against his regime, organisers said.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier put the death toll from Friday's crackdown at 34, with most of the victims falling in the Homs area where tanks took positions yesterday.

"Several tanks took up positions at dawn in the district of Al Khalidiyeh," the Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

"Throughout the night and this morning shots were heard from Al Khalidiyeh to Baba Amr and Inshaat," he added, referring to two other central locations in the city.

Security forces were also conducting arrests in the city of Latakia early yesterday, the Observatory said, adding that many of those picked up were minors.

In Rastan "two people were killed and several wounded" when security forces opened fire to break up a protest march, an activist said.

One person was also wounded in the Al Herak district of southern Daraa province where relatives and parents had staged a protest outside a hospital demanding the return of the bodies of their loved ones, the Observatory said.

The human-rights activist, Malak Mahmud Sayed, was arrested in Aleppo in the north when she was applying for a passport and taken to military security, several rights groups said.

The Observatory said 15 people were killed in Daraa on Friday, including an 11-year-old, while 25 others were wounded. Another 16 died in Homs and three were killed in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma.

The official Sana news agency reported that three policemen and two civilians were killed on Friday by "armed men" in the Daraa district of Ghabagheb.

Friday's rallies put to the test assurances by Mr Al Assad to UN chief Ban Ki-moon the previous day that his security forces had ended operations against civilians.

On Friday, the Observatory reported that 20,000 people had marched in Al Khalidiyeh on a day of protest demanding the fall of Mr Al Assad's autocratic regime, with protests also held in other parts of the country.

The protests came as the UN said it was dispatching a humanitarian mission to Syria this week after a damning report to the Security Council on Thursday on Mr Al Assad's "apparent shoot to kill" policy.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the Security Council there was "reliable corroborative evidence" that Syrian forces were deliberately shooting anti-regime demonstrators.

Ms Pillay also said in an interview with France 24 television that her group had drawn up a list of 50 Syrians in senior positions that she said were responsible for the violent repression.

Another UN official, B Lynn Pascoe, the body's undersecretary general, told the council that the death toll from the security force crackdown on the protests has now passed the 2,000 mark.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch urged the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to take action against member state Syria, saying it had violated its charter "by systematically and brutally suppressing peaceful civilian protests".

On Thursday, Russia and Turkey dismissed growing calls led by US President Barack Obama for Mr Al Assad to quit, offering the Syrian leader rare support.

"We do not share the United States and the European Union's point of view regarding President Al Assad and will continue to pursue our consistent and principled stance on Syria," the foreign ministry said in Moscow.

A government official in Ankara said a call for Mr Al Assad's removal must come from the Syrian people themselves.

Frustrated that international calls for a halt to the bloodletting were being snubbed by Damascus, Mr Obama had called on Thursday for Mr Al Assad to quit.

That was quickly echoed by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, with Spain following suit on Friday.

A day after the so-called Syrian Revolution General Commission announced the creation of a coalition of 44 "revolutionary blocs", vowing to bring down the government, dissidents also met in Turkey to discuss Mr Al Assad's regime.

"The Syrian National Council will have between 115 and 150 members, more than half of whom are in Syria, with the reminder in exile," the dissident Obeida Al Nahhas said.

* Agence France-Presse