AMMAN (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador made a surprise trip to a southern Syrian town on Tuesday, his second visit to an area rocked by protests against President Bashar al-Assad and a move likely to antagonize the authorities in Damascus.
As a U.N. humanitarian team toured the country, security forces raided the countryside near the city of Hama, killing at least five people in assaults to subdue pro-democracy demonstrations, local activists said.
Houses were stormed in several villages and towns in the al-Ghab Plain, farmland east of the Mediterranean coast that contains the Roman city of Apamea, they said.
“Shabbiha (pro-Assad militiamen) accompanied the military. We have one name of the five martyrs, Omar Mohammed Saeed al-Khateeb,” said an activist in Hama, which has been under military siege since it was stormed at the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan on August 1.
The United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed in Syria and the U.N.’s human rights council launched an investigation on Tuesday into the violence, including possible crimes against humanity, despite objections from Russia, China and Cuba.
The bloodshed was wrought by Assad’s crackdown on a five-month-old popular uprising which prompted the United States and European Union to widen sanctions against Syria last week and to call on the Syrian president to step aside.
In Jassem, a town about 30 km (19 miles) east of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, residents said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford toured an area where activists say Syrian forces killed at least 12 people in May in response to major unrest.
Ford angered Damascus seven weeks ago when he paid a visit to Hama in a gesture of solidarity with the city where huge anti-Assad protests occurred in June and July. At the start of August, Assad sent troops into Hama to crush demonstrations.
Damascus accused Ford of inciting unrest — a charge which Washington denied — and banned Western diplomats from leaving Damascus and its outskirts. Days later, a crowd broke into the U.S. embassy compound, breaking windows and spraying graffiti.
“He came by car this morning, although Jassem is swarming with secret police,” a resident told Reuters. “He got out and spent a good time walking round. He was careful not to be seen talking with people, apparently not to cause them harm.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that Ford spent about four hours in Jassem. She said he had informed Syrian authorities only after the trip was complete.
“In this case he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn’t inform them before the visit was because they haven’t been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere,” she said.
Ford, the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since Washington withdrew its envoy in the wake of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, has been outspoken in criticizing authorities for firing at civilian protesters.
Nuland said Ford spoke with a number of Jassem residents, including some associated with the opposition, and expressed support.
“His message back to them was that we stand with them and that we admire the fact that their action has been completely peaceful,” she said, adding that Syria’s official reaction to the trip had so far been “relatively muted.”
International condemnation of Syria’s harsh repression of street unrest escalated this month after Assad sent the army into several cities including Hama, Deir al-Zor and Latakia.
Arab states broke months of silence to call for an end to the violence and neighboring Turkey, which for years had close relations with Damascus, has also told Assad to rein in his security forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday it was “troubling” that Assad had not kept a promise he made last week to call off military and police operations.
The U.N. Human Rights Council launched an international commission of inquiry into Assad’s crackdown, condemning what it called “continued grave and systematic human rights violations by Syrian authorities such as arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the killing and persecution of protesters and human rights defenders.”
The 47-member forum easily adopted a resolution presented by the European Union, the United States and Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.
The council launched the inquiry to establish the facts “and where possible to identify those responsible with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity, are held accountable.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement: “Urgent and proper action is paramount to investigate these violations, identify those responsible and ensure that perpetrators of violations are held accountable.”
Separately on Tuesday, the EU agreed to extend sanctions against Syria, adding 15 people and five institutions to the list of those already targeted by travel bans and asset freezes.
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, rejected the council resolution as unbalanced.
“This once again confirms that there is a determination to politically condemn Syria and pass over any proposal for opening and reform that exists in this country,” he said in an appeal before the vote for members to reject the resolution.
The delegations of Russia, China and Cuba all took the floor to denounce what they called interference in Syria’s internal affairs and said that they would vote against the text. Ecuador also voted against the resolution.
The vote came after Syrian forces shot dead three people in the city of Homs on Monday, the same day that a U.N. humanitarian team visited the city, according to activists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces and loyalist gunmen known as “shabbiha” opened fire after hundreds of people took to the streets.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York that “a protest situation developed” in Homs during the team’s visit “and the mission was advised to leave for security reasons.
“The mission did not come under fire,” he added.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said gunmen had opened fire at police in front of the governorate building in Homs as the U.N. team was passing by, killing one policeman.
Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it hard to verify reports of events on the ground.
Assad’s government has blamed armed groups for the violence and has said more than 500 soldiers and police have been killed since the unrest erupted in March.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Paul Simao