UN sees possible crimes against humanity in Syria

ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY GEORGE JAHN Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime of potential crimes against humanity Thursday as activists reported fresh violence in Daraa, the city where the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted 11 months ago.

Speaking to reporters in Vienna, Ban demanded the Syrian regime stop using indiscriminate force against civilians caught up in fighting between government troops and Assad's opponents.

"We see neighborhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centers, children as young as 10 years old chained and abused," Ban told reporters in Vienna. "We see almost a certain crime against humanity."

Syrian activists said government forces attacked Daraa on Thursday, carrying out arrests and shooting randomly in the city seen as the birthplace of the uprising.

The push into Daraa, located near the Jordanian border some 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Damascus, follows sieges on the rebellious cities of Homs and Hama and appears to be part of an effort by the regime to extinguish major pockets of dissent.

The U.N. General Assembly scheduled a vote for Thursday on an Arab-sponsored resolution strongly condemning human rights violations by the Syrian regime and backing an Arab League plan aimed at ending the conflict.

Assembly spokeswoman Nihal Saad said Wednesday that the vote will take place Thursday afternoon. There are no vetoes in the 193-member world body and U.N. diplomats said the resolution, which already has 60 co-sponsors, is virtually certain to be approved.

While General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues and supporters are hoping for a high "yes" vote to deliver a strong message to Assad's regime.

On Wednesday, Assad ordered a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the same family dynasty for 40 years. Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad's regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria's upheaval.

But after almost a year of bloodshed, with well over 5,400 dead in the regime's crackdown on protesters and rebels, Assad's opponents say the referendum and other promises of reform are not enough and that the country's strongman must go.

Assad's call for a referendum also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers.

The U.S. dismissed the referendum move as an empty gesture.

Assad "knows what he needs to do if he really cares about his people," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "The violence just needs to come to an end, and he needs to get out of the way so we can have a democratic transition."

In Strasbourg, the speaker of the European Parliament said Assad's leadership was "completely discredited" and that his proposal to submit a new constitution to a referendum before a nation at war is "inconceivable."

"The European Parliament wants to see humanitarian corridors to be put into place and shelters provided for the growing numbers of displaced people," Martin Schulz said. "The parliament urges the EU ... to help strengthening the unity of the Syrian forces which oppose the regime inside and outside the country."

Russia, a top Syrian ally, has presented Assad's reform promises as an alternative way to resolve Syria's bloodshed. Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council aimed at pressuring Assad to step down.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will be in Syria on Friday and Saturday for talks on how to end the violence, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Thursday. Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing last week.

"I believe the message of this visit is that China hopes for a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation," Liu said.

On Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported raids and shooting by Syrian troops in Daraa, along with renewed shelling in the rebellious neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs.

Homs has seen one of the deadliest assaults of the crackdown that activists say has killed hundreds in the past two weeks, aimed at crushing a city that has been a stronghold of dissent.

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Jahn reported from Vienna.