Turkey PM: Syria is aiming guns at its own people
Turkish PM Erdogan says he hopes Syria will take steps toward reform within 10-15 days; Syrian military forces continue offensive, despite international pressure.
Syrian tanks and troops swept into two northwestern towns near the Turkish border on Wednesday, killing one person and wounding 13 according to activists, and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Syria was aiming guns at its own people.
In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, residents reported heavy gunfire as troops deployed across the provincial capital, making arrests and spraying pro-Assad slogans on buildings.
Erdogan, a former close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said his foreign minister had emphasized when he visited Damascus on Tuesday that the violence must cease.
"In Syria, the state is pointing guns at its own people," he declared. "Turkey's message to Assad is very clear: stop all kinds of violence and bloodshed."
The Turkish leader said he hoped that Assad, confronting nearly five months of pro-democracy demonstrations, would take steps within 10 to 15 days towards promised political reforms.
He said the Turkish ambassador had visited Hama in central Syria and reported that tanks were leaving the Sunni Muslim city, scene of a fierce military crackdown this month in which rights groups said up to 300 people had been killed.
Rights groups say 1,600 civilians have been killed since the uprising against Assad's 11-year-rule erupted in March, making it one of the bloodiest upheavals in the Arab world this year. Authorities say 500 soldiers and police have died.
Syria has barred most independent media since the unrest began, making it hard to verify conflicting reports by activists, residents and officials.
Already under Western sanctions, Assad faces growing international pressure to curb the bloodshed after three regional powers publicly called for change this week, leaving Iran as Syria's only staunch remaining ally.
Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia condemned the violence and recalled its ambassador, while Egypt's new government, which took office after Hosni Mubarak's overthrow in February, said Syria was nearing "the point of no return".
On Tuesday Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu held more than three hours of talks with Assad.
A Turkish official said he called for "an end to bloodshed, withdrawal of the soldiers, the importance of having elections as soon as possible" and dialogue with the opposition.
In response, Assad said Syria "will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens ... but is also determined to continue reforms," Syria's state news agency said.
Washington expressed disappointment at Assad's comments and said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected to talk to Davutoglu after his meetings in Syria.
"It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
France also voiced dissatisfaction. "The time for delaying tactics is up. The Syrian authorities must respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Foreign ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one woman was killed and 13 people were wounded when 12 tanks and armored vehicles, along with 10 large buses full of troops, entered the towns of Taftanaz and Sermin, around 30 km (19 miles) from the border with Turkey.
In nearby Binnish, rights campaigners said Syrian forces killed four villagers on Tuesday.
"Daily protests in the region have been unabated since the start of Ramadan (on Aug. 1)," a local resident, who gave his name only as Ali, told Reuters by phone.
The protests against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect dominates power in Syria, were inspired by Arab revolts which overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.
Last week Assad sent troops and tanks to quell the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Hama in central Syria and the army launched a similar assault on Sunday against Deir al-Zor, capital of an oil-producing province bordering Iraq's Sunni heartland.
Witnesses said on Wednesday tanks and armored vehicles had spread across Deir al-Zor. They added that residents had reversed earlier pledges to resist any army assault by force.
"The inhabitants of Deir al-Zor have taken a collective decision not to resist, so as not to give excuses to the authorities to spread their propaganda about terrorists and armed groups," one resident said.
"We are hearing the sound of machineguns and shells," he said, adding he heard that soldiers and military intelligence officers had a list of 364 activists they were hunting.
He also said he saw troops spraying slogans on houses such as "Assad or no one", "The people want the army to come in."
On Tuesday night, he said people had offered to share fruit and water with soldiers at one of the main roundabouts in the city. "A captain jumped from an APC and told soldiers not to
accept anything. He then fired about 30 bullets in the air from his AK-47 in the air to disperse the crowd," the resident said.
Authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted in March, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths.
Hama and Deir al-Zor are populated mostly by majority Sunnis and the crackdowns there resonate with their co-religionists who predominate in the Middle East and govern most Arab countries.