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Red Cross visits Syrian jail, raids renew near Turkey

Sep 5, 2011, 10:40 a.m.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) meets Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in Damascus September 5, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/Sana/Handout

"Abdelsalam was hit in the head. He was among a group of family members and other refugees who dashed across the plain to Turkey when six armored personnel carrier deployed outside Ain al-Baida and started firing their machineguns into the village at random this morning," Mohammad Hassoun said

Thousands of families fled their homes in the northern border region in June when troops assaulted town and villages that had seen big protests against Assad.

Faced with a heavy security presence in central neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo, and military assaults against a swathe of cities from Latakia on the coast to Deir al-Zor in the East, street rallies calling for an end to the Assad family's domination of Syria have intensified in towns and villages across the country of 20 million.

Demonstrators have been encouraged by the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and growing international pressure on Assad. The European Union has imposed an embargo on Syrian oil exports, jeopardizing a major source of revenue for Assad, who inherited power from his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

"Economic pressure will be key in swaying the merchant class toward the side of the uprising, but Assad will keep adopting the military solution and deploying heavy weapons across Syria," said Syrian dissident in exile Bassam al-Bitar.

"International intervention, something akin to a no-fly zone, will still be needed to protect protests and encourage more members of the army to defect," Bitar, a former diplomat, told Reuters from Washington.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who once backed Assad, said ordinary people in Syria had made it clear they would not back down despite daily killings.

"It's clear now after the protests that have taken place in Syria...(that) the killing is almost daily. It's clear that the people will not abandon their demands, the question is how to get out of this internal deadlock in Syria," he said.

Tiny Qatar, which has significant regional clout, was the first Arab country to criticize Assad's bloody crackdown, closing its embassy in Damascus two months ago after the building was attacked by pro-Assad militiamen.

Assad has repeatedly said he is fighting agents of what he calls a foreign plot to divide Syria.

Syrian authorities, who have expelled most foreign media, blame "armed terrorist groups" for the bloodshed and say that 500 army and police have been killed by such gangs.

Daily protests have increased in northwestern regions that include the cities of Homs, Hama, Idlib and the main port city of Latakia, prompting an escalation of military raids that killed hundreds of Syrians in the last month, rights organizations say.

Last week, Adnan Bakkour, attorney general of the province of Hama, announced his defection to the opposition side on YouTube. Security forces have been combing the region and adjacent Idlib to find him, activists and residents say.

State authorities said Bakkour had been kidnapped by gunmen, but he said he resigned because security forces had killed 72 jailed protesters and activists at Hama's central prison on the eve of a military assault on the city on July 31.

Bakkour said at least another 420 people were killed in the operation and were buried in public parks.

(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habbous in Dubai; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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