Clinton urges new steps against Syria, another 16 killed


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China, Russia and India to step up pressure on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as his forces killed another 16 civilians in their brutal crackdown on protest.

Anti-regime protesters meanwhile were readying to flood the streets of Syria again after the Ramazan Friday prayers, setting the stage for further bloody confrontations.

Clinton in an interview with CBS News broadcast Thursday suggested that China and India impose energy sanctions on Syria while she urged Russia to stop selling arms to Damascus, which has bought arms from Moscow for decades.

“What we really need to do to put the pressure on Assad is to sanction the oil and gas industry. And we want to see Europe take more steps in that direction,” Clinton said.

“And we want China to take steps with us. We want to see India, because India and China have large energy investments inside of Syria. We want to see Russia cease selling arms to the Assad regime,” the top US diplomat said.

Her comments came as US officials said Washington has decided to call explicitly for President Assad to step down.

The White House said President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed during a phone call Thursday on the need for a “transition to democracy” in Syria.

The Obama administration has been steadily ratcheting up pressure on Assad, who has been deaf to growing international calls to stop a crackdown that human rights groups say has killed more than 2,000 people since mid-March.

“The United States is looking to explicitly call for Assad to step down.

The timing of that is still in question,” according to a US official who did not rule out that the announcement could come next week.

“It’s part of steps to increase the pressure given the ongoing brutality of the Assad regime,” the official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

Ignoring the growing international outrage, Assad pledged this week a relentless battle against “terrorist groups” Damascus says is fomenting a popular uprising across Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website that a total of 2,150 people have been confirmed dead since the protests began in mid-March, including 1,744 civilians and 406 members of the security forces.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland meanwhile said the US ambassador in Damascus personally warned Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Thursday that Syria will face further sanctions if it does not stop killing protesters.

Robert Ford, the envoy who returned to Damascus last week after consultations in Washington, also urged Syria’s top diplomat to ensure journalists can cover the protests.

On top of earlier targeted measures against Assad, regime officials and others, the US on Wednesday imposed sanctions on the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and the largest mobile phone operator, Syriatel.

Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the drivers of the uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule, urged Syrians to pursue anti-regime rallies throughout the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan which started August 1, saying “every day in Ramadan is a Friday.”

Friday — the weekly day of rest when key Muslim prayers are held — has become a focal point of anti-regime protests in Syria, with hundreds of thousands pouring on to the streets each week to demonstrate.

On Thursday, Syrian forces killed at least 16 people, with the army storming more towns in pursuit of anti-regime protesters, rights activists said.

Most of the deaths occurred after columns of tanks and troops stormed the the town of Qusayr in the central province of Homs, they said.

“Twelve people were killed by the end of military operations” in Qusayr, the Syrian Observatory said.

Three other people were shot dead by security forces in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor’s Al-Matar neighbourhood and several houses were torched, the Britain-based rights group said.

Another person was killed in the coastal city of Lattakia where Assad’s forces unleashed another wave of arrests.

As part of the crackdown, Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights since 2004 and a key source of information for international media, was arrested on Thursday, activists said.

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