Syrian forces kill 34 despite Assad pledge

Syrian forces killed dozens of protesters on Friday despite assurances by President Bashar al-Assad that a crackdown was over, and thousands of people rallied across the Arab nation with renewed vigour demanding political freedoms.

Activists said at least 34 people, including four children, were shot dead by Assad’s forces in the southern province of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad erupted in March, the city of Homs, 165 km north of Damascus, suburbs of the capital and in the ancient desert city of Palmyra.

Activists in Homs early on Saturday reported government forces fired heavy machineguns at a main residential district and residents said they saw military helicopters flying overhead.

Firing was concentrated on al-Khalidiya district, the activists said, adding that electricity and land phone lines in the city had been cut after protests on Friday.

“The protests took a carnival-like atmosphere and the ante was raised a notch higher, hence we are seeing this response,” an activist contacted in the city said.

He was referring to the displaying of shoes as a sign of contempt for Assad during demonstrations demanding his removal.

“Bye-bye Bashar. See you in The Hague,” protesters chanted, referring to the Dutch-based international war crimes tribunal.

“We want revenge against Maher and Bashar,” others shouted, referring to the Syrian leader and his powerful brother — a military commander accused by diplomats and residents of attacking cities and cracking down on pro-democracy protests.

Encouraged by growing global pressure on Assad, the Syrian opposition in exile said it would set up a National Council in Turkey on Sunday to support the uprising and help fill any power vacuum should the protests succeed in ousting Assad.

Similar initiatives in the past have failed to produce a robust umbrella group to unite the opposition, fragmented by 41 years of Assad’s harsh rule.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation, told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that military and police operations had stopped. But activists say his forces are still shooting at protesters.

The violent repression prompted coordinated calls from the United States and European Union on Thursday for Assad to step down and Washington imposed sweeping new sanctions on Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon and Iraq and is an ally of Iran.

On Friday, European Union states agreed to expand the number of Syrian officials and institutions targeted by EU sanctions and laid out plans for a possible oil embargo. Syria exports over a third of its 385,000 barrels per day output to Europe.