Syria promises elections as siege on city continues
At least 100 dead in Hama, human rights groups say
BEIRUT - The Syrian military tightened its suffocating siege on the city of Hama yesterday in its drive to crush the main center of the antigovernment uprising in the country, even as the foreign minister promised that free parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year in a gesture of reform.
Like previous reform promises, the new announcement is unlikely to have much resonance with Syria’s opposition, which says it has lost all confidence in President Bashar Assad’s overtures.
The four-year term of the current Parliament expired this year and Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem pledged to press ahead with reforms and said the new Parliament “will represent the aspirations of the Syrian people.’’
“The ballot box will be the determining factor, and it will be up to the elected Parliament to review adopted draft bills to decide on them,’’ he said during a meeting he held with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.
But Syria was coming under increasing international criticism over the bloody siege of Hama, launched last Sunday after residents calling for Assad’s ouster took over the city of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in cities around the country Friday, met by gunfire from Syrian troops. Activists said yesterday that 24 people were killed.
Mourners held funerals yesterday for several of those killed. Amateur videos posted online by activists showed crowds marching in the funeral procession of a teenager who was killed in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said funerals were also held for six soldiers and members of the security forces who were gunned down by “terrorist groups’’ and gunmen in Homs, Hama, and the northern province of Idlib.
On Friday night, tanks shelled Hama, causing several casualties, one resident said. He said there were reports that a hospital was hit in the bombardment.
Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed. Electricity, Internet, and phone lines in the city have been cut for seven days, and residents have reported food and medical supplies dwindling.
Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.
Yesterday, Gulf Arab countries broke their silence on the bloodshed, calling for an immediate end to the violence and for implementation of serious reforms in Syria.
In a statement posted on its website, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for “the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force.’’
In a sign that at least the United States was expecting things to get worse, the State Department urged Americans on Friday to leave the country immediately. The warning came as congressional calls grew for the Obama administration to impose severe new sanctions on Assad’s regime.
In a new travel warning, the State Department said Americans should depart Syria while commercial flights and other transportation are still available “given the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the situation.’’ It noted that Syrian authorities have imposed tight restrictions on the ability of US and other diplomats to move around the country.
Egypt Egypt’s largest political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, held its first open internal election yesterday since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, in an attempt to burnish its democratic credentials ahead of parliamentary polls later this year.
After decades spent underground because of an official ban, the public vote is also part of a concerted push by the Islamist group to show off its organization and dispel its reputation as a secretive and closed group. It looks poised to win big at the November polls, largely because of its well-organized political machine and social outreach programs.
Yemen Government forces clashed yesterday with supporters of Yemen’s most powerful tribe for a second consecutive day in Sana, the capital, despite efforts to mediate an end to the fighting.
Heavy gunfire erupted just before sundown in Sana’s Hassaba district between forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the tribal confederation led by the al-Ahmar clan, witnesses said. Saleh supporters and fighters loyal to the al-Ahmar clan have been locked in a tense standoff in Sana since late May, when al-Ahmar’s leader sided with protesters calling for Saleh’s ouster.