Syrian FM Promises Free Elections, but Gov't Forces Kill 24

Syrian television announces that 'uprising was quelled,' in Hama operation that Syrian sources say lasted six days.

Violence continued throughout the weekend in Syria with government forces killing at least 24 people, most in the city of Hama, as protests against the regime of Bashar Assad continued.

Syrian television announced yesterday that the "uprising was quelled," and showed pictures of burned buildings and streets filled with debris. Official Syrian sources said that the operation in Hama had lasted six days.

Syria anti-government protest, Idlib - AFP - August 5 2011

Foreign news agencies and human rights organizations said that on Friday, the first Friday of the month-long Ramadan, tens of thousands of protesters took to the street in different parts of the country, including in a suburb of the capital Damascus.

Five people were reported killed by the security forces in Damascus, and one of the human rights groups said that the Syrian security forces were firing at demonstrators from ambulances.

The battle for Hama raged on Friday, with reports of tanks being used to target population centers as the military sought to crush the main center of the anti-regime uprising in the country.

The city, with its 800,000 residents, had been under siege by the military since last Sunday. A city resident who sneaked out of Hama on Friday night told news agencies that there were reports that a hospital was hit in Friday's bombardment.

The man said that he was trying to get back but was finding it impossible because the siege had been tightened. Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama, with electricity, Internet and phone lines in the city cut for days, and food and medical shortages reported by city residents.

Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.

Meanwhile, in a clear effort to counter mounting international criticism and appease protesters, Syria's foreign minister suggested yesterday that general elections will be held by the end of the year.

Walid Moallem said "free and fair elections" would lead to a people's assembly that represents the Syrian population. His statements came two days after President Assad issued a decree that allows opposition parties to operate for the first time.

"The ballot box will be the determining factor and it will be up to the elected parliament to review adopted draft bills to decide on them," he said during a meeting he held with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.

Like previous reform promises, the new announcement is unlikely to have much resonance with Syria's opposition, which says it has lost all confidence in Assad's overtures.

The Gulf Arab states broke their silence about the bloodshed in Syria yesterday, with the the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council issuing a statement calling for an immediate end to the violence and for the implementation of reforms.

The statement from the six nations followed a pledge by the United States, France and Germany to consider additional ways to support the Syrian people and bring pressure against Assad.

A White House statement Friday said U.S. President Barack Obama spoke separately with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It said the three leaders condemned the continued use of "indiscriminate violence" against the Syrian people.

For his part, Germany's foreign minister cast doubt on Assad's future. "I don't think that there can still be a political future for Assad that is supported by the Syrian people," Guido Westerwelle told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

"The massive use of force shows that the regime shies away from nothing to keep power," he said.

In a new travel warning, the State Department said Americans should depart Syria while commercial flights and other transportation are still available "given the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the situation."

The French news agency also reported yesterday that tanks were moved into Deir al-Zor, the site of a massive anti-government protest on Friday. Tribes in Syria's restive eastern province of Deir al-Zor are bracing for an army assault and are determined to confront it, according to a video of what was described as a meeting of tribal leaders posted on YouTube. The video shows a sheikh telling what appears to be a tribal meeting that negotiations with authorities to release detainees and withdraw the military had failed and that security forces were bent on storming Deir al-Zor city.

"Two or three days ago they sent officers from Aleppo," the man told the crowd of more than 50 people, most in traditional tribal robes. "They offered us 5,000 jobs but we rejected that."

He said the military response to local demands was: "The army came to Deir al-Zor on a mission and has to carry it out. "So all those who have a weapon (should ) prepare yourselves and if the demands are not met then things are finished," he said to cheers.