Ban Ki-moon - AP - 28.2.2011
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Photo by AP
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The UN chief told Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday that he was alarmed by the escalating violence in Syria and demanded that Assad stop deploying the military against civilians.

"In a phone conversation with President Assad of Syria today, the Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] expressed his strong concern and that of the international community at the mounting violence and death toll in Syria over the past days," the UN press office said in a statement.

It added that Ban "urged the president to stop the use of military force against civilians immediately."

Ban has been trying for months to speak with Assad, UN officials have said, but the Syrian president had been refusing to take his calls. The last time the secretary-general spoke with Assad was in May, when he told Assad to end the violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.

Saturday's phone call comes days after the UN Security Council overcame deep divisions and condemned Damascus' bloody crackdown on civilian protesters, the 15-nation body's first substantive action on Syria's five-month-old uprising.

Ban's statement said Assad referred to "the large number of lives lost among the security forces and police," an assertion that the Syrian government has made repeatedly since the crackdown began -- and one which Western diplomats have voiced doubts about.

"The Secretary-General said he condemned the violence against both the civilians as well as security forces," the statement said.

Ban also referred to Assad's promises of reforms.

"The Secretary-General underscored that for these measures to gain credibility, the use of force and mass arrests must stop immediately," the UN press office said.

Ban also reiterated previous UN demands that Damascus allow missions from international humanitarian agencies and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into the country.

Opposition arrested

Meanwhile, a prominent Syrian opposition figure was arrested by Syrian security forces, activists based in Lebanon told the German Press Agency dpa early Sunday.

Walid al-Bunni and his sons, Ayad and Moayed, were snatched from their homes late Saturday in Damascus and taken to an unknown destination by "government gangs," Omar Idlibi, a Syrian activist based in Lebanon, told dpa.

The arrests came few hours after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that "free and fair" elections for a new parliament will take place by the end of 2011.

More than 1,650 people and around 350 security personnel have been killed since pro-democracy protests against Al-Assad's government began in mid-March, human rights advocates say.

These reports cannot be independently verified, as Syrian authorities have barred most foreign media and international human rights groups from the country.