Middle East

Syria protests: 'Deaths in anti-Assad demonstrations'

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Media captionAmateur footage of Syrian protests in Harasta, Deir al-Zour, Baniyas, al-Bukamal, Homs, and Busur-al-Harir

Syrian security forces have fired on anti-government protesters after Friday prayers, killing at least 40 people across the country, activists say.

Most of the reported deaths were in the southern Deraa province.

Activists said people were also killed in the western city of Homs, where shooting and explosions continued throughout the night.

On Thursday, the US led unprecedented calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Russia rejected the US calls for President Assad to go, saying he should be given more time to enact reforms.

Syria's UN envoy Bashar Ja'afari accused the US of trying to instigate insurrection.

He said the US and other UN Security Council members were "waging a humanitarian and diplomatic war" against Syria.

Meanwhile, the EU is preparing to expand its sanctions against Syria, targeting the oil sector.

"Proposals are now being prepared for an embargo on the import of Syrian crude oil into the European Union," EU foreign affairs chief Baroness Ashton said in a statement.

Five institutions and 15 individuals are to be added to the sanctions blacklist, which imposes travel bans and asset freezes.

There may also be further sanctions against the telecommunications and banking sectors, officials told Reuters.

Most of Syria's oil exports go to Europe.

'Beginnings of victory'

Rights activists said two people were killed in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, while there were more deaths in the suburbs of Damascus.

However, most of the deaths were in three towns in Deraa province, where the protests began in March.

Syrian state media gave a different account, saying gunmen had opened fire on worshippers and security forces, killing at least two policemen.

The conflicting accounts are difficult to verify because the Syrian government has banned foreign journalists from the country.

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Media captionSyria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari: "Illegitimate strategies against my own country"

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says according to activists, hostilities continued throughout the night in Homs.

Tanks were said to be converging on several areas, and shooting and explosions could be heard along with military helicopters hovering overhead.

Despite Mr Assad's promises to stop the security forces firing on protesters, activist accounts and internet video postings indicate nothing much has changed, says our correspondent.

President Assad has promised political reforms but has continued to clamp down on the protesters, blaming the unrest on "terrorist groups".

Human rights groups believe that about 2,000 people have been killed and thousands arrested since March as Syria's security forces - using tanks, helicopters, gunships and snipers - try to quell dissent that has broken out in much of the country.

The UN says it has been given permission to send a humanitarian mission to Syria on Saturday, and has been guaranteed full access, following a conversation between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Assad on Wednesday.

The US called for Mr Assad to step down on Thursday and introduced harsh new sanctions, freezing all Syrian government assets under US jurisdiction and prohibiting any US citizen from engaging in transactions with Syria.

The US and European powers have already indicated they will push for new sanctions at the UN, though these may meet resistance from veto-holding permanent members Russia and China.

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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