Middle East

Syria unrest: Civilians need protection, says UN

A mobile phone image distributed by Syrian activists said to show an anti-government protest in Homs - 26 August 2011
Image caption Activists said thousands of people protested in a number of Syrian cities on Friday

A UN investigative team has wrapped up its visit to Syria, concluding that "there is an urgent need to protect civilians" from excessive force.

The team, the first Syria has allowed in since a deadly crackdown on protests began in March, said there was no countrywide humanitarian crisis.

The UN says more than 2,200 people have been killed in the violence.

The UN Security Council is split over whether to impose sanctions against Syria's leadership over the crackdown.

'Intimidated and threatened'

Syria had refused for months to allow a UN mission into the country to investigate the violence. The government allowed the team in last week, promising full and unfettered access.

"The mission concluded that although there's no countrywide humanitarian crisis, there is an urgent need to protect civilians from the excessive use of force," said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

But the promised free access did not materialise.

"The constant presence of government officials limited the mission's ability to fully and independently assess the situation," Mr Haq said.

In areas the team visited where there had been unrest, "people... said they felt extremely intimidated and under constant threat".

Image caption President Assad says his security forces are tackling "armed criminal gangs"

Demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March and have since spread across much of the country.

President Assad has sent in tanks and troops to hotbeds of protest, activists have said, but the demonstrations have continued.

The government has blamed the unrest on "armed criminal gangs".

Human rights groups estimate 500 soldiers have been killed in the unrest, which has seen thousands of people arrested.

Most foreign journalists have been barred from Syria, making it difficult to verify reports from local activists and officials.

UN battle

Activists said at least three people were killed on Friday as thousands of people came out to protest in a number of cities after Friday prayers - the last in the month of Ramadan.

At the UN Security Council, the battle over what to do about Syria has heated up, says the BBC's UN correspondent Barbara Plett.

Russia and a group consisting of the US, France, Britain, Germany and Portugal submitted rival draft resolutions on Syria.

The Russian draft calls for the Syrian government to speed up reforms and for the opposition to take part in political dialogue.

The US-European draft calls for a freeze of President Assad's assets and an arms embargo against Syria.

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the Western group was "stirring up the opposition" in Syria.

Our UN correspondent says there is no immediate plan for a vote on the rival drafts.

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