Middle East

Syria violence: Assad's multi-party decree dismissed

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Media captionThe BBC's Jim Muir says almost no information is coming from Hama, as unverified footage claims to show tanks on the move in the city

Syrian activists have dismissed a decree from President Bashar al-Assad to allow opposition parties after decades of Baath party rule.

The move was an attempt to divert attention from the violent repression of protests, an activist told the BBC.

Reports from Hama say an army assault on the city has left dozens of civilians dead.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Syrian government was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths.

Human rights groups estimate that more than 1,600 civilians have been killed since anti-government protests began in March.

At least 150 people have been killed since Sunday, mainly in Hama, the rights groups say, as the military intensifies its efforts to quell dissent.

Decree

On Thursday, President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree authorising a multi-party system, Syria's state news agency Sana said.

Mr Assad's ruling Baath party has enjoyed a monopoly on power since 1963. Ending the system of one-party rule has been a key demand of pro-democracy protesters.

The government adopted a draft law to this effect on 24 July, but the new decree gives it immediate effect.

An activist who fled Hama on Wednesday dismissed the president's move as an attempt to divert attention from what was happening in his city and other places in Syria.

"Well, this is too late for this right now, after killing so many people and invading cities and burning buildings and burning houses, raping people and arresting people and putting people in jail, what this kind of rule going to make for us now?" he told the BBC. "It's too late."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also dismissed the move.

"This is almost a provocation. What we want is an end to the violence against the civilian population which is only defending its rights," Mr Juppe told French radio.

International criticism of Syria has been mounting since the UN Security Council adopted a statement on Wednesday condemning the government of President Assad for "widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians".

Mrs Clinton repeated an earlier statement that the United States believed Mr Assad had lost legitimacy in Syria.

"We've seen the Assad regime continue and intensify its assault against its own people this week," she said on Thursday.

"We think to date the government is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people of all ages."

She added that the US and its allies were working to apply more pressure on Syria beyond the addition of more individuals to a sanctions blacklist.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, long an ally of Syria, said Mr Assad would "face a sad fate" unless he urgently carried out reforms and reconciled with the opposition.

And EU states extended their sanctions against Syria, adding more names to a list including President Assad and 34 other people as well as firms linked to the military. They stopped short of targeting the oil industry and banks, however.

'Artillery and snipers'

Dozens of people are believed to have been killed in a five-day military assault on Hama, with residents saying on Thursday that tanks have shot their way into Assi (Orontes) Square, in the centre of the city of 800,000 people.

Activists said as many as 30 more people were killed in Hama late on Wednesday, after Ramadan prayers.

One resident who escaped the city on Wednesday told the BBC it looked "exactly like a battlefield... like a Gaza Strip kind of city. Like some villages in Iraq when the US army invaded it. That's how it looks like".

He said artillery was firing at buildings and snipers were shooting at anyone they saw on the streets.

Many people had left the city, he said, but for those left, food and medicine were running low.

Communication with the city is all but completely cut off, as are water and electricity, correspondents say.

Anti-government protests began in March, inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and soon spread to many cities across the country.

Protesters have vowed to rally every evening during the holy month of Ramadan, after nightly prayers.

Mr Assad blames the current violence on "armed criminal gangs" backed by unspecified foreign powers.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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