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Syria forces besiege town after defections: residents--opposition forms "Salvation Council".

--Syria Forces Besiege Town After Defections: Residents

--Opposition Forms "Salvation Council"

Syrian forces have stormed the central city of Homs, set up positions in the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border and were ready to enter the eastern Syrian town of Boukamal near the Iraqi frontier, according to Beirut press reports on Monday. Thousands of people, emboldened by defections among security forces, took to the streets denouncing President Bashar al-Assad, residents said. News reports put the death toll from this weekend's clashes at more 32.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, has sent troops into towns across the country to try to end four months of protests against his rule. But activists say discontent is growing within the mostly Sunni army rank and file. Killings, mostly carried out by ultra loyalist units, are leading to limited defections within the military, which is controlled by mostly Alawite officers who ultimately answer to Assad's feared brother Maher, activists say.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed since the protests began in March, human rights organizations say. Some 1,000 troops and security forces backed by tanks and helicopters surrounded Boukamal overnight, a poor eastern border crossing with Iraq, a day after Military Intelligence agents there killed five protesters, including a 14-year-old boy, residents said. The killings drove thousands into the streets, overwhelming soldiers and secret police. Residents said around 100 Air Force Intelligence personnel and the crew of at least four armored vehicles joined the protesters.

An activist in the region said tribal figures were working on a compromise with the army to return weapons and armored vehicles seized by protesters in return for troops not entering the town, which has a population of 150,000 people, together with the surrounding villages. "The protesters returned several army personnel carriers today as a sign of good will. The regime knows it will meet tough resistance if it attacks Boukamal, and that Iraqi tribes on the other side of the border will rush to help their brethren," he said.

Another activist said: "The whole of Boukamal went to the streets after the killings. Several armored personnel carriers moved into the center of the town to stop them, but ended joining sides with the human wave." The official state news agency, SANA, said "armed terrorist groups" killed three security personnel in Albu Kamal on Saturday.

In the resort town of Zabadani, on the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, security forces and army units in armored personnel carriers raided houses overnight on Sunday and arrested 70 people, residents said. "They shoved them into buses. The arrests were arbitrary. Many did not have anything to do with demonstrations. A disabled man and his 15-year-old son were taken away," a doctor in Zabadai told Reuters by phone.

Syrian troops also arrested on Sunday the prominent writer Ali Abdallah, a fierce critic of the state's use of violence. "Ten soldiers entered my father's house around 9:00 a.m. in the Damascus suburb of Qatana and took him. He just had heart surgery three weeks ago," Abdallah's son Mohammad told Reuters by phone from exile in Washington. Abdallah, a 61-year-old secular thinker, was released in May after spending four years in prison because of his membership of the Damascus Declaration, a pro-democracy group of intellectuals and opposition figures, and his criticism of Assad's alliance with Iran's clerical rulers.

Salvation Council

Syria's fractured opposition is also taking steps to unite, forming a 25-member National Salvation Council composed of Islamists, liberals and independents at a meeting in Istanbul on Saturday and agreeing to work toward a democratic vision. The meeting came a day after the biggest demonstrations so far in Syria's four-month uprising, during which at least 32 civilians were killed, including 23 in the capital Damascus. Members said there were ongoing consultations with Syrian opposition inside the country on setting up several committees to lobby the West to isolate Assad and drum up financial support to help the uprising. "We shall work toward reaching out toward other opposition groups to lead the country toward the democratic vision we have," prominent opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh told Reuters after the one-day meeting. "We are in the process of forming committees that will support the Syrian revolution from inside in every way," he added. He said there will be one committee to collect financial support from Syrians abroad to help the families of "martyrs" and prisoners in Syria. "Another committee will lobby with the international community to put pressure on the regime to leave without more bloodshed and victims, he added.

Despite disputes over whether to form a government-in-waiting or wait to see how the uprising unfolds, the meeting concluded with the election of the 25-member National Salvation council composed of Islamists, liberals and independents. Of the close to 350 people who attended the opposition congress, many were Syrian exiles who had left the country years earlier. The meeting had hoped to join members of the opposition inside Syria via a video link to a conference in Damascus, but that was called off after Syrian security forces targeted the venue as part of Friday's crackdown in the capital. The Council met Sunday to appoint an 11-member committee, and to tighten bonds between the various opposition groups.

The West has criticized Assad's crackdown on four months of protests demanding political freedoms. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting Turkey, said Assad's repression was "troubling." "The brutality has to stop," she said in a televised interview with a group of young Turkish people at an Istanbul coffee shop Saturday. At a joint news conference with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Clinton said: "Now Syria's future is up to the Syrian people, but of course the efforts by the opposition to come together to organize and to articulate an agenda are an important part of political reform." She expressed hope the people and Assad's government could be reconciled to work together. "It's what the Syrian people are doing, trying to form an opposition that can provide a pathway hopefully in peaceful cooperation with government to a better future."

Davutoglu repeated warnings to Assad's government to implement reform or face being swept away by democratic forces. "A government that does not consider the demands of its society won't survive," said Davutoglu, who had earlier urged Assad to undertake "shock therapy" reforms. "Assad said he was going to have multi -party groups in parliament ... I hope Syria has opposition parties and that Syria has opposition parties that raise their voice," he said.
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Publication:The Daily Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jul 18, 2011
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