Clashes kill 31 in Syria, EU hails opposition body
BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 31 people were killed across Syria in the latest wave of violence, notably clashes between gunmen believed to be army deserters and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a Syrian activist group said on Monday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday's death toll included 17 members of the army and security forces as well as 14 civilians, many of them in the opposition hotbed of Homs, where heavy gunfire was heard again early on Monday.
Assad's crackdown on six months of protests against his 11-year rule has killed 2,900 people, the United Nations says. That has prompted the United States and European Union to impose sanctions and seek a U.N. resolution against Damascus.
The European Union welcomed a newly formed Syrian opposition council on Monday as a "positive step forward" and urged other countries to do the same, but stopped short of any call to recognize the anti-Assad body.
The National Council wants to be recognized internationally as representative of those ranged against Assad but has no plan to be an alternative government, one of its members said on Monday after a meeting of the group in Stockholm.
"Our role ends with the fall of this regime," said Abdulbaset Sieda, a Sweden-based member of the council's executive committee, but discussions would then be held about future elections and broadening democracy.
"We will seek recognition...and we say all the time that there are important people, knowledgeable people who can do everything that is good for Syria and Syria's future," he said.
Damascus warned on Sunday it would take "tough measures" against any state which formally recognized the council.
While some of Assad's Western critics have welcomed the formation of the council, they are wary of Syria's sensitive geo-strategic position -- Iran is a close ally -- and so have not embraced the opposition diplomatically or offered military help as they did the Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Syria says it faces foreign-backed terrorist groups who it says have killed 1,100 soldiers and security personnel. International media are mostly barred from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from authorities and activists.
Demonstrations have been mainly peaceful, although often dispersed by force. However, reports of Sunni Muslim conscripts deserting and turning their guns on security forces, dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, have been increasing.
While most opposition figures say they are still seeking to overthrow Assad by peaceful means, the most senior army officer to defect said last week that armed force was the only way.
The British-based Observatory said suspected deserters killed eight soldiers in simultaneous attacks on three army posts in the northern province of Idlib on Sunday.
In Homs, seven civilians were shot dead and another eight people were later killed in clashes between troops and suspected deserters, the group said.
Heavy machinegun fire overnight and early on Monday partially destroyed at least five houses in the Bab Sabaa district of the city, while in the Khalidiya neighborhood security forces raided houses and arrested 27 people, it said.
Homs has seen some of the worst violence in recent weeks, including attacks on local officials and university staff.
Many activists blame pro-Assad "shabbiha" militiamen for those killings, but some targets appear to have had links with authorities, who say their opponents were behind the deaths.
"There are ... parties who are financing and arming groups in Syria, that are spreading sectarian violence, kidnapping people, assassinating our best scientists, our best doctors, in an attempt to try to tear the country apart," presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said in Malaysia.
Shaaban said she had told officials in Kuala Lumpur that Syria was "pressing ahead with the reforms that are answering the legitimate demands of our people".
Assad formally ended decades of emergency rule and promised a multi-party parliamentary election next year. But activists say the gestures have made no difference, with killings, torture, mass arrests and army raids intensifying recently.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki encouraged Syria to open up its political system. "Certainly, we support the idea of ending one-party rule, rule by one person," he told Reuters on Monday when asked about what reforms were needed in Syria.
"I say openly that we support the idea of states that come from the people, states and governments appointed by the people, not those appointed behind closed doors."
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government says it seeks balance in its relations in the Arab region. But Baghdad's approach to Syria has been caught between backing Damascus -- whose ruling Alawites are an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam -- and concern about Syria's upheaval spilling across the border into Iraq.
Syria has warned critics abroad not to help the opposition.
"We will take tough measures against any state which recognizes this illegitimate council," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Damascus on Sunday. That drew a riposte from the French Foreign Ministry the next day.
"The Syrian authorities are wrong to think that threats, intimidation or assassinations will allow them to keep the Syrian people, or those who support their legitimate hopes for freedom and democracy, silent," said spokesman Bernard Valero.
Separately, in Paris, other anti-Assad Syrians announced the creation of a bloc of technocrats to help fill a void of expertise within the existing opposition and lay out a roadmap for Syria once its current leadership falls.
Set up by U.S.-based doctor and activist Ayham Haddad and the owner of Orient TV Ghassan Abboud, the Syrian Alliance for Democracy was born out of frustration at the slowness in forming a structured opposition.
Abboud said his group would not compete with the Council but aimed to bring neutral technocrats from everywhere into the fold to pool expertise on how to coordinate change in Syria.
"We respect all the efforts made...to unify the opposition, but this Council must have the will of the people inside Syria and clarify its position," he said. "For now, everyone has the common goal that the regime must fall but the political parties are not ready to lead the country after the regime falls."