DAMASCUS, July 6, (AFP): Syrian troops killed at least 22 people in an assault on the flashpoint central city of Hama that prompted US calls for an immediate pullback, human rights activists said on Wednesday.
Troops also wounded more than 80 people as they pushed through improvised roadblocks put up by residents after massive anti-government protests in the city of some 800,000 people, the National Organisation for Human Rights said.
“The wounded are being treated in two hospitals in Hama,” the rights group’s chairman Ammar Qurabi told AFP in Nicosia, adding that troops had entered the Al-Hurani hospital.
“A large number of Hama residents have fled either to the nearby town of Al-Salamiya or towards Damascus,” Qurabi said, adding that there were “continued search and kill operations and arrests in the city.”
Syrian forces may have committed crimes against humanity when they crushed protests in the town of Tel Kelakh in May, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.
Urging the United Nations to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, the human rights group said nine people died in custody after being captured during the operation in the town, close to the Lebanese border.
“Amnesty International considers that crimes committed in Tel Kalakh amount to crimes against humanity as they appear to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population,” it said.

In what it described as a “devastating security operation”, scores of men were arbitrarily arrested and tortured, including people already wounded, in response to largely peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad, it said.
The military operation in Tel Kelakh, completed in a few days in mid-May, sent thousands of people fleeing for shelter into Lebanon, Amnesty said in a report compiled from witness testimony gathered in Lebanon and from phone calls into Syria.
“The accounts we have heard from witnesses to events in Tel Kelakh paint a deeply disturbing picture of systematic, targeted abuses to crush dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.
“Most of the crimes described in this report would fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. But the UN Security Council must first refer the situation in Syria to the Court’s Prosecutor.”
The US State Department said it too had no evidence that the protests had been anything but peaceful and called on the Syrian government to withdraw its troops from Hama.
“We urge the government of Syria to immediately halt its intimidation and arrest campaign, to pull its security forces back from Hama and other cities, and to allow Syrians to express their opinions freely,” it said.
“The government of Syria claims that it’s interested in dialogue at the same time that it is attacking and massing forces in Hama, where demonstrations have been nothing but peaceful.”

Rebel fighters seized a village south of the Libyan capital and another group advanced towards Tripoli from the east on Wednesday in the biggest push in weeks towards Muammar Gaddafi’s main stronghold.
Rebels firing their rifles into the air in celebration poured into the village of Al-Qawalish, just over 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Tripoli, after a six-hour battle with pro-Gaddafi forces who had been holding the town.

Rushing through an abandoned checkpoint where government troops had left tents and half-eaten bread in their rush to get away, the rebels ripped down green pro-Gaddafi flags, said a Reuters reporter in the village.
Farther north, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, rebels pushed westwards from the city of Misrata, taking them to within about 13 km of the centre of the neighbouring town of Zlitan, where large numbers of pro-Gaddafi forces are based.
But they came under heavy artillery fire. Doctors at the al-Hekma hospital in the centre of Misrata, where bodies are brought from the front line, said 14 fighters had been killed on Wednesday and about 50 were injured.
The advances came as reports proliferated that Gaddafi —under pressure from a five-month uprising against his rule, sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign — was seeking a deal under which he would step down.
The head of NATO said on Wednesday he had no confirmed information Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was looking for a way to step down after more than four months fighting a rebellion and sustained Western bombing.

A Russian newspaper on Tuesday quoted a high-level Russian official as saying Gaddafi was sounding out the possibility of stepping down in return for a political future for his son Saif.
“I have no confirmed information that Gaddafi has sounded out the possibility to step down, but it is quite clear that the end state must be that he leaves power,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who held meetings this week with Russian leaders, told a news conference.
A Libyan rebel leader pressed the international community Wednesday to release frozen Libyan funds and make them available to opposition forces battling Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.
Mahmud Jibril, a senior member of the National Transitional Council (NTC), based in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, made the appeal after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara.
“A short time ago, we passed a message to the UN representative for Libya, to be conveyed to Security Council members, (asking) that Libya’s assets be allocated to us,” Jibril told reporters through an interpreter.

The international community should not content itself with supporting the struggle against the Kadhafi regime, he said.
“The Libyan people are also plagued by problems of hunger, poverty and shortage of medicine and housing,” he added.
Libyan prosecutors plan to charge rebel leaders with national security crimes, seeking to convict as traitors those leading the armed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi that has plunged the country into civil war, officials said Wednesday.
A judge compiling the charges laid out his case against 21 rebel officials who are based in the eastern city of Benghazi, including the National Transitional Council’s head, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Defendants will be tried in absentia.
Rebel leaders in Benghazi could not immediately be reached for comment.
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi has sent envoys to South African President Jacob Zuma to say that he will stay out of talks on a peace deal and on his own future, the foreign minister said Wednesday.
“He said he does not want to stand in the way of a settlement, and so he will not be part of negotiations about the future of Libya or his own future,” foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told a news conference.
Zuma is part of an African Union team trying to broker a peace deal in Libya, and met Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen Monday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Hundreds of protesters pelted the security headquarters in the city of Suez with rocks on Wednesday, angered by a court’s decision to uphold the release of seven policemen facing trials for allegedly killing protesters during Egypt’s uprising.
Riots and protests have been escalating recently over what many see as the reluctance of the military rulers to prosecute police and former regime officials for the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the uprising earlier this year.
Ahmed el-Ganadi, the father of a protester killed in Suez during the revolt, said hundreds of residents marched toward the government building housing the courts and security headquarters to protest the court decision.
“The courts are corrupt. They are complicit in denying us justice,” el-Ganadi said. “We will no longer wait for a court decision to get our retribution.”
Suez, at the southern tip of the strategic Suez Canal, was the scene of some of the most dramatic confrontations between police and protesters during the 18-day uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The military council that took over power from Mubarak has promised democratic elections in the coming months and a transition to a civil government.
Hundreds of people torched police cars and tried to storm government buildings in the Egyptian city of Suez on Wednesday, after a court confirmed the bail of police accused of murdering protesters.
Witnesses said angry people took to the streets of the canal city, burning police cars, pelting government buildings with stones and some trying to storm security headquarters.
The protesters, which included families of victims who died in protests that ousted president Hosni Mubarak, were furious when a court rejected the public prosecutor’s appeal against a decision to free the police officers on bail.

Yemeni security forces clashed with Islamist fighters near a southern town overrun by militants, leaving seven Islamists and a soldier dead, officials said.
Two militants were arrested, said Yemen’s Defense Ministry.
Security across the impoverished nation in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, home to an active al-Qaida branch, has largely collapsed since the uprising seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke out in February.
Islamist fighters seized Zinjibar and another southern town earlier this year, and Yemeni troops have sought to push them out.
Wednesday’s clashes broke out when Islamist fighters attacked an army base west of Zinjibar, but were repelled. Yemen’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that seven Islamists were killed and two arrested during the attack. Medics said one soldier was killed and three injured in the clashes.
To the west, medical officials said two soldiers were killed in clashes with armed tribesmen near the southern city of Taiz, a hotbed of opposition protests.
Yemen needs urgent international aid to head off a humanitarian crisis, a UN mission visiting the impoverished country said on Wednesday, warning of “collective punishment” against civilians.
“We call on the international community to quickly provide humanitarian aid to Yemen during this difficult time,” said the UN team in a statement at the end of a nine-day visit.

“Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis due to intentional actions plus a failure in taking action,” it said.
“We remind everyone, whether government or non-government parties, that civilians should not fall as victims of collective punishment because of the power struggle” gripping their country, it said.
“Officials must realise that with such actions, they are violating international laws and will thus be held accountable after Yemen passes this phase. We urge them to stop these acts,” it added.
Yemen’s oil-rich Gulf neighbours are engaged in “intensive consultations” to resolve the long-running political crisis in Sanaa, Oman’s foreign minister Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said.
The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “continue to conduct intensive consultations with parties in Yemen to overcome the crisis,” Abdullah told AFP late on Tuesday.
He expressed hope that the contacts would “lead to progress in reaching an agreement between the opposition and the ruling party.”
Protesters have been calling since January for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit office after more than three decades in power.

Bahrain’s opposition said on Wednesday the first session of a national dialogue for reforms in the Gulf island kingdom raised questions over whether talks aimed at easing tensions after unrest this year can succeed.
The country’s Sunni rulers crushed mostly Shiite-led pro-democracy protests in March. After a four-month crackdown, Bahrain hopes to lay the groundwork to heal deep rifts.
But opposition groups said the first working session of the dialogue on Tuesday night left them concerned that their main demand — a representative, directly elected government — would never reach a consensus in break-out groups where some 60 people were allowed only five minutes to present their views.

“To reach a complete solution to the big problems, you have five minutes to speak? What is that?” asked Sayed al-Mousawi of the main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq. “Is this dialogue?”
The organisers of the national dialogue have said sessions will continue over a two-week period and then convene again if consensus is not reached on specific issues.
Bahrain faced international pressure to begin reconciliation after the fierce crackdown in which hundreds of mostly Shi’ites were arrested in the tiny Gulf island state, a financial hub and host to the Fifth Fleet, the US Navy’s main regional outpost.
The dialogue has been widely praised by foreign governments as an opportunity for reform and reconciliation. But opposition groups mocked a system where participants were handed numbered placards and called upon to give their five-minute speech.
Four separate sub-groups are involved in the talks, discussing economic, political, social and legal reform issues.

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused Bahrain of carrying out a “campaign of violent oppression” against its citizens and called for an end to abuses.
Pro-reform protesters took to the streets of Bahrain on Feb 14, but security forces crushed the demonstrations a month later in a bloody crackdown followed by sweeping arrests.
The authorities said 24 were killed in the unrest.
“The Bahrain government, since March 2011, has been carrying out a punitive and vindictive campaign of violent repression against its own citizens,” HRW said in a statement.
“Bahrain has brutally punished those protesting peacefully for greater freedom and accountability while the US and other allies looked the other way,” HRW’s deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, was quoted as saying.
HRW called on “the Bahrain government to end unlawful and incommunicado detention, to free protesters unless legitimate criminal charges can be brought against them, and to allow monitoring by independent human rights organisations.”
Bahrain has sentenced one of its citizens and two foreigners to 10 years in prison for spying for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Bahrain’s high criminal court sentenced “three defendants to 10 years in prison for spying for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, one of them a Bahraini and two others” who worked as diplomats in Iran’s embassy in Kuwait and were sentenced in absentia, the daily reported.

An Omani court jailed 12 protesters from the coastal city of Sohar for up to three and a half years, a local paper said on Wednesday, bringing the total number of people sentenced for taking part in the unrest to 80.
The usually tranquil Gulf Arab sultanate was hit by months of protests in February, following uprisings that toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia. Omanis, however, focused their demands on higher wages, more jobs and an end to graft rather than a change of government.
Security forces in May broke up a sit-in that had lasted for months in Sohar, an industrial city that was the epicentre of demonstrations in Oman. Police cleared road blocks and arrested hundreds on charges of vandalism, though most were pardoned.
The court sentenced two of the protesters to three and half years in jail for “making explosives and throwing them at security forces” the Times of Oman said. Five others were sentenced to two and half years and the rest to one year.
Last month the public prosecutor said 13 protesters were given prison sentences of up to five years for protesting in Sohar. A further 55 people were jailed for up to a year for demonstrating in the eastern town of Jaalan Bani Bu Ali.

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