August 6, 2011 / 6:14 PM / 8 years ago

Syrian forces arrest opposition leader Bunni: group

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces arrested Saturday a veteran opposition leader who had called for a national conference to seek a peaceful transition of power after a five-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, a rights group said.

Walid al-Bunni, who has been in hiding, was seized with his sons, 19-year Moayad and 18-year Iyad, by secret police in his hometown of Tel, north of the capital Damascus, the Syrian Human Rights Organization Sawasiah said in a statement.

A day before his arrest, Bunni told Reuters the uprising must remain peaceful, even as the death toll from a government crackdown rises.

“There will be more martyrs, but the protest movement must remain nonviolent,” he added. He urged rank-and-file soldiers, who he said had begun to defect from the military, not to take up arms against Assad’s forces.

“The best thing these conscripts can do is to go home. Using arms will give an excuse for Iran and Hezbollah and other outside parties to intervene,” Bunni said.

Syria’s government says it is fighting an insurrection by armed sectarian saboteurs, funded from outside the country, who provoked violence by attacking government troops. Western countries and rights groups say government forces have frequently fired on peaceful demonstrators to crush dissent.

Events in Syria are difficult to verify independently because the government has restricted access to media.

Last month Bunni and other top opposition figures attempted to convene a “National Salvation conference” in the Qaboun district of Damascus.

A day before, however, security forces killed 15 protesters in front of a wedding hall where the conference was scheduled to take place, according to human rights campaigners. The meeting was canceled.

Nawaf al-Bashir, another conference organizer from the tribal region of Deir al-Zor, was also held by secret police last week, relatives and friends said.

Bunni, 48, a medical doctor, has twice been jailed for several years over his political activities since Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000.

Rights campaigners say more than 12,000 Syrians have been arrested since the uprising, with many being badly beaten and abused.

Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Peter Graff

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