UN sees possible crimes against humanity in Syria

EDITH M. LEDERER ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime of committing "almost certain" crimes against humanity Thursday as activists reported fresh violence and the arrest of several prominent dissidents, including a U.S.-born blogger.

Just hours later, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for a resolution backing an Arab League plan that calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime.

The 193-member world body voted 137-12 on the Arab-sponsored resolution, with 17 abstentions, and though there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and its resolutions are nonbinding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues. Russia and China, who recently vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council, voted against the General Assembly measure along with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others who heeded Syria's appeal against the measure.

Thursday's high "yes" vote was the strongest condemnation so far of Assad. The resolution called on the Syrian leader to hand power to his vice president and immediately stop the bloody crackdown that has killed over 5,400 people.

"Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message of the people of Syria: the world is with you," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said in a statement. Assad "has never been more isolated. A rapid transition to democracy in Syria has garnered the resounding support of the international community. Change must now come."

In Vienna, the U.N. chief demanded the Syrian regime stop using indiscriminate force against civilians caught up in fighting between government troops and Assad's opponents.

"We see neighborhoods shelled indiscriminately," Ban told reporters. "Hospitals used as torture centers. Children as young as ten years old jailed and abused. We see almost certain crimes against humanity."

Syrian activists said government forces attacked Daraa on Thursday, carrying out arrests and shooting randomly in the city where the uprising against Assad erupted 11 months ago. They also reported intense clashes between army defectors and government troops in the central province of Hama.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops "committed a new massacre" near the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, killing 19 people -- 11 of them from the same family. The report was impossible to confirm.

The push into Daraa, located near the Jordanian border some 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Damascus, followed sieges on the rebellious cities of Homs and Hama and appears to be part of an effort by the regime to extinguish major pockets of dissent.

Also Thursday, the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, reported the arrest of a several activists, including Razan Ghazzawi, a U.S.-born blogger and press freedom campaigner.

Ghazzawi, who was born in Miami, Florida, was arrested early in the uprising and charged with spreading false information, but she was released after about two weeks.

The LCC said security forces also arrested leading human rights activist Mazen Darwish and others during a raid on their Damascus office. The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

The LCC said dozens of people were killed throughout the country Thursday.

The Observatory said security forces killed at least one civilian in Daraa, and that clashes between defectors and government troops there left at least three regime soldiers dead.

The deadliest fighting between troops and defectors took place in the village of Kfar Naboudeh in Hama province where government forces killed 10 defectors and four civilians, according to the Observatory. The group said the defectors attacked an army checkpoint near the Hama town of Soran, killing four soldiers.

Death tolls are all but impossible to confirm in Syria, which has banned independent reporting.

The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarized in recent months as army defectors fight back against government forces.

On Wednesday, Assad ordered a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the same family dynasty for 40 years. Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad's regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria's upheaval.

But after almost a year of bloodshed, with well over 5,400 dead in the regime's crackdown on protesters and rebels, Assad's opponents say the referendum and other promises of reform are not enough and that the country's strongman must go.

Assad's call for a referendum also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers.

Russia, a top Syrian ally, has presented Assad's reform promises as an alternative way to resolve Syria's bloodshed. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will be in Syria on Friday and Saturday for talks on how to end the violence, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Thursday. Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing last week.

"I believe the message of this visit is that China hopes for a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation," Liu said.

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Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna.