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Assad kills 19 protesters, including boy, 8, infant, as Syrian regime arrests 10,000

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Nineteen people were killed in the southern Syrian town of Harra on Wednesday in tank shelling and gunfire, activist Ammar Qurabi said, according to Reuters.

He said tanks shelled four houses in the town, killing 11 people. Another two people, a child and a nurse, were killed in gunfire, said Mr. Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. Late Wednesday evening, Syrian forces killed a 8-year-old boy.

Rights activists said Wednesday that the regime had arrested at least 10,000 pro-democracy protesters, and several hundred have been reported missing. They said that Syrian forces have been conducting door to door searches in attempts to seize suspects.

Syria also withdrew its candidacy for a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council. It had faced intense pressure from Western countries, who decried the regime assaults on pro-democracy Syrians. These countries are also trying to get the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights atrocities.

Syria’s decision to withdraw its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council was welcomed late Wednesday by Susan Rice, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

“We believe this is a result of the good sense of the member sttes of the Asia Group who determined that they were unwilling to lend sufficient support to a country whose human rights record is deplorable and who is in the process of killing its own people in the streets, arresting thousands, and terrorizing a population that is seeking to express itself through largely peaceful means,” Ambassador Rice said.

Syria’s prime minister, meanwhile, issued a decision to form a committee in charge of preparing a new draft law for general elections to make the country’s elections process compatible with the best internationally recognized standards, the state’s news agency SANA reported on Wednesday.

According to the SANA, the committee, which is studying different Arab and foreign laws and is in discussion with a number of experts, is expected to submit its work results to Prime Minister Adel Safar within two weeks.

Meanwhile, shells and gunfire rocked the anti-regime protest hub city of Homs on Wednesday as the Syrian army hunted down more dissidents in the flashpoint town of Banias, activists said.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the 27-member bloc will look at fresh sanctions this week against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime after already honing in on his inner circle. It has frozen the assets of 13 Syrians close to Mr. Assad, including his brother Maher, the commander of the elite Republican Guards.

“Shelling and automatic gunfire could be heard early Wednesday in the (Homs) neighborhood of Bab Amr and in nearby villages, Mashada, Jobar and Sultanya,” human rights activist Najati Tayara told Agence-France Presse.

He said that the villages, with a combined population of some 100,000 inhabitants—many of them Bedouins—have been the target of a security operation since Monday.

In a bid to snuff out anti-regime protests, the Syrian army has deployed its tanks to several protest hubs and unleashed a wave of arrests focused on dissidents and protest organizers, local human rights activists said.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, meanwhile, urged the Syrian president to refrain from using excessive force.

“I urge again President Assad to heed calls for reform and freedom and to desists from excessive force and mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators,” Mr. Ban told journalists in Geneva.

Syrian security forces have earlier released 300 people detained in the coastal city of Banias and restored basic services, a rights group said, within hours of the government saying the threat from protests was receding.

Tanks stormed residential areas of Banias last week, after President Assad deployed the military to crush dissent against three decades of Baath Party rule, having held out the prospect of political reform when unrest first erupted in March.

Water, telecommunications and electricity had been restored, but tanks remained in major streets, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. Two hundred people, including pro-democracy protest leaders, were still in jail, it said.

“Scores of those released were severely beaten and subjected to insults. A tank deployed in the square where demonstrations were being held,” Observatory director Rami Abdelrahman said, according to Reuters.

Human rights campaigners said at least six civilians, including four women, where killed in raids on Sunni neighborhoods in the mixed-faith city, and in an attack on an all-women demonstration just outside Banias on Saturday.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, said security forces were reacting to armed militants who had manipulated “the legitimate demands of the people,” calling them “a combination of fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers, people who are ex-convicts and are being used to make trouble.”

“I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment...I hope we are witnessing the end of the story,” Ms. Shaaban told a New York Times correspondent allowed into the country for a few hours. Most foreign journalists have been banned.

Until the uprising began, 46-year-old Mr. Assad—who hails from the minority Shiite Alawite sect—had been emerging from Western isolation after defying the United States over Iraq and reinforcing an anti-Israel bloc with Iran, increasing Syrian Sunni concerns.

“This regime is playing a losing card by sending tanks into cities and besieging them. Syrians have seen the blood of their compatriots spilt. They will never return to being non-persons,” said Suhair al-Atassi, a prominent rights campaigner from Damascus.

Ms. Atassi said a demonstration against President Assad’s autocratic rule erupted on Tuesday in Homs, Syria’s third city, despite a heavy security clampdown, after tanks stormed several neighborhoods on Sunday and three civilians were killed.

Another human rights campaigner in Homs said 1,500 people had fled their homes in three villages near the city where tanks had been deployed. The military forces, which swept into the area on Sunday, killed one woman he told Reuters.

In the eastern city of Qamishli, around 1,000 people marched in a night demonstration demanding the lifting of the sieges of Homs, Banias and southern cities and towns encircled by tanks.

Four civilians in the southern town of Tafas were killed as security forces widened a campaign of arrests, a human rights campaigner in the region said, adding that 300 people had been detained since tanks entered Tafas on Saturday.

Officials have blamed most of the violence on “armed terrorist groups,” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators, and say around 100 soldiers and police have also been killed in the unrest.

United States officials said the first step in a new American approach toward the nation, of 23-million people, would be to declare that Mr. Assad has forfeited his legitimacy to rule, a policy shift that would amount to a call for regime change, The Associated Press reported.

The tougher US line almost certainly would echo demands for “democratic transition” that the administration used in Egypt and is now espousing in Libya, the officials said. But directly challenging President Assad's leadership is a decision fraught with problems: Arab countries are divided, Europe is still trying to gauge its response and there are major doubts over how far the United States could go to back up its words with action.

The Obama administration’s policy deliberations were occurring against a backdrop of ongoing violence in Syria.

Thousands of Syrians have been detained in the past two months, including about 9,000 who are still in custody, said Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

Mr. Qurabi told AP that the group has documented the deaths of 757 people.

“We urge the Syrian government to stop shooting protesters, to allow for peaceful marches and to stop these campaigns of arbitrary arrests and to start a meaningful dialogue,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday in Washington. He said Mr. Assad still had a chance to make amends, but acknowledged, “the window is narrowing.”

Mr. Toner called the government’s claims of reforms “false,” and demanded that the regime stop shooting protesters even as security forces entered new cities in southern Syria that had been peaceful until now.

Syria has a history of deadly crackdowns. President Assad’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed a Sunni uprising in 1982 by shelling the central town of Hama, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates. Conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has made no official estimate.

Agence-France Presse adds:

Kuwait will take Syria's place in an Asian group of nations nominated for places on the Geneva-based council.

Western nations had launched a major diplomatic push to block Syria’s effort to get on the council. They are also making a new attempt to get the UN Security Council to condemn President Assad’s campaign against his opponents.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, portrayed the move as a straight swap with Kuwait, denying reports by diplomats of intense “political” pressure from Asian and Arab nations to withdraw from the May 20 election.

He said Syria would take Kuwait's place in the next elections for the Human Rights Council in two years.

Jaafari told reporters after an Asian group meeting at the UN headquarters that there had been “a common understanding between the two governments” to exchange candidacies.

“It doesn't mean at all that any of us has withdrawn its candidacy from the council,” Mr. Jaafari said. “It is a sovereign decision based on the Syrian government’s will to reschedule the timing of our candidacy, based on reconsidering our priorities.”

“There is no room for any political approaches in the Asian group,” he added. Kuwait will join India, Indonesia and Philippines as the new Asian entrants on the council.

Under the UN resolution that established the Human Rights Council in 2006, member nations are expected to “uphold the highest standards” of human rights. “There was clearly some embarrassment about this because of the violence in Syria now,” said one Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

France, Britain, the United States and other Western nations had lobbied hard against Syria—particularly since the crackdown on opposition protests in which hundreds are believed to have been killed.

A British mission spokesman said Syria’s withdrawal “is absolutely the right thing to happen.”

“We consider it completely inappropriate for a country conducting such violent repression against peaceful protestors to be seeking membership of the Human Rights Council,” said the spokesman.

The Human Rights Watch group also welcomed Syria’s withdrawal.

“This election had become a referendum on Syria’s violent suppression of protests, and Syria withdrew rather than face a resounding defeat,” said Peggy Hicks, HRW’s global advocacy director.

European powers have stepped up calls for the UN Security Council to take action over Syria.

Russia blocked one Security Council statement on the Syria crackdown, but Britain is now leading efforts to see whether the 15-nation council could pass a resolution or statement warning the Assad regime.

Germany’s ambassador Peter Wittig said Tuesday that those responsible for deaths in Syria should be “held accountable.”

The Russian government has again insisted however that the Security Council cannot discuss Syria, which is a key Russian ally in the Middle East. Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, can veto any resolution.

(Dina Al-Shibeeb of Al Arabiya can be reached at: Dina.ibrahim@mbc.net. Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached at: abeer.tayel@mbc.net. Both are editors at Al Arabiya English.)