AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian troops shot dead eight protesters and injured 25 in Damascus on Wednesday, in one of the bloodiest incidents in the capital in the seven-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.
One activist said victims had been taken to a hospital outside the city and held in isolation. “They took the bodies and the injured up the mountain to al-Zahra hospital in Tel and sealed it,” the activist said from Barzeh district where the shooting occurred.
Another 16 people were killed elsewhere, mainly in the provinces of Homs and Hama, in a continued military crackdown on the revolt against Assad, the Local Coordination Committees activists’ organization said.
Syrian authorities agreed to an Arab League plan on November 2, pledging to pull its military out of restive cities, set political prisoners free and start talks with the opposition, which wants to remove Assad and introduce democratic freedoms.
Syria’s representative to the Arab League said on Tuesday that Damascus had “gone a long away” toward implementing the plan, pointing to the release of around 500 detainees under a conditional amnesty announced last week.
Local activists said hundreds of people were arrested in the city of Homs on Wednesday as troops made house-to-house raids following six days of tank bombardment of a main residential district to suppress protests and an emerging armed insurgency.
The official news agency said life was normal in Homs and municipal departments were removing refuse piled in the streets by “armed terrorist gangs.” Security police defused two homemade bombs in a public park in Khalidiya neighborhood, it said.
In a letter to the Arab League, the main Syrian National Council opposition group, formed in Istanbul two months ago, said the League initiative had reached a “dead end” after Assad’s forces killed 100 civilians in the last seven days.
“In light of lack of commitment by the regime to implement the clauses of the initiative, the only way now is to seek protection for civilians according to all legitimate means under international law,” Council head Burhan Ghalioun said in the letter to the League’s secretary general.
He said the league should take “a frank and clear position regarding the mass annihilation being committed by the regime” at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers called by Qatar to discuss Syria on Saturday.
Although international powers are increasingly critical of Assad’s failure to stem the crackdown, China and Russia oppose U.N. sanctions on Syria and Western countries have effectively ruled out military action like the air strikes that helped topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Unlike their Western counterparts, Arab governments struggling with their own domestic “Arab Spring” dissent have not demanded that Assad step down.
Syrian authorities say Islamist militants and foreign-backed armed gangs have killed 1,100 members of the security forces during seven months of unrest. The United Nations said this week the crackdown has killed 3,500 people. Syrian activists put the number of civilians killed as high as 4,200.
In a sign of continued splits among Assad’s political foes, a centrist opposition delegation said after talks with the Arab League it supported sending observers to Syria to document attacks on civilians but was opposed to foreign intervention.
“We requested from the Arab League to provide mechanisms to protect (people) from murder, repression and torture by sending Arab and international observers and opening the way for human rights organizations and media to visit Syria,” veteran politician Hassan Abdel Azim said.
In Damascus, members of the elite Fourth Armoured division, under the command of Assad’s brother Maher, fired at a crowd gathered in Barzeh district, campaigners told Reuters.
The crowd had gathered to mark the funeral of Bassam Abdekarim Barah, a protester killed on Tuesday.
Syrian authorities have banned most foreign media from the country since protests demanding Assad’s removal erupted in March, making it hard to verify reports independently.
An armoured Syrian force also stormed a plain northwest of the city of Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus, in pursuit of army defectors, local activists said.
Tanks pounded villages near the town of Maharda and 14 casualties were reported on both sides in fighting. Troops surrounded a farm in the village of Khuneizeer where deserters had taken refuge and at least one civilian was killed.
Residents said tanks had returned to the city of Hama after demonstrations demanding an end to four decades of Assad family rule grew, and sporadic attacks were reported on troops.
Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, was stormed by troops and tanks three months ago to put down the largest protests of the uprising.
Tareq, an activist in the city, said protesters have been were trying to avoid open areas and defectors had started defending neighbourhoods that had seen regular protests.
“They brought back the tanks because troops have not been managing to attack protesters as easily as before,” he said.
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche