Syrian activists: Troops fight defectors, 15 dead

December 3, 2011 - 5:10 AM
Mideast Syria

A pro-Syrian regime protester waves a Syrian flag as he stands in front of portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, during a protest against sanctions, Damascus, Syria, Friday Dec. 2, 2011. International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. But the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey and others have piled on sanctions aimed at crippling the regime once and for all. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian activist group says a clash between army defectors and troops in the northwest of the country has left at least 15 people dead.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Saturday's pre-dawn fighting in the city of Idlib has killed seven soldiers and policemen, as well as five anti-government army defectors and three civilians.

The U.N.'s top human rights official said this week that Syria is in a state of civil war, and that more than 4,000 people have been killed since mid-March.

Until recently, most of the bloodshed in Syria was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protesters, but there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting regime forces.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — The United Nations' human rights chief called on the international community to protect Syrian civilians Friday as violence surged across the country, with hours of intense shooting that sent stray bullets whizzing across the border.

The new bloodshed came as activists reported a grim milestone in the 8-month-old revolt: November was the deadliest month of the uprising, with at least 950 people killed in gunbattles, raids and other violence as protesters demand the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

The U.N. estimates more than 4,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in the middle of March, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

"In light of the manifest failure of the Syrian authorities to protect their citizens, the international community needs to take urgent and effective measures to protect the Syrian people," Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Pillay on Thursday characterized the conflict in Syria as a civil war.

International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. But the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey and others have piled on sanctions aimed at crippling the regime once and for all.

The EU's latest sanctions, which were announced Thursday, target 12 people and 11 companies with travel bans and asset freezes. They add to a long list of regime figures previously sanctioned by the EU, including Assad himself and high-ranking security officials.

The identities of those on the new list were made public Friday in the EU's official journal. They include the ministers of finance and the economy, as well as army officers.

Also on the list are the pro-government Cham Press TV and Al-Watan newspaper, as well as a research center that the EU says provides support to the Syrian military in acquiring equipment for the surveillance of demonstrators.

Three oil companies, which the EU statement said provide financial support to the regime, were also listed. They include the Syria Trading Oil Company, which is responsible for Syria's oil exports.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC also said Friday it will halt its operations in Syria to comply with the penalties.

The economic sanctions will limit the regime's access to cash at a time when Assad is relying more than ever on the support of the business classes.

Assad has spent years shifting the country away from the socialism espoused by his father, which helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class that transformed Syria's economic landscape — even as the regime's political trappings remained unchanged.

So far, the monied classes have clung to the sidelines, but if the economic squeeze reaches them, it could be a game-changer for the regime.

Despite Friday's diplomatic squeeze, violence continued.

The most serious violence appears to have occurred in the Syrian town of Talkalakh, where witnesses reported more than six hours of explosions and gunfire starting at 3 a.m.

"We were hearing strong explosions and the crack of heavy machine-gun fire," Ahmad al-Fahel, who lives on the Lebanese side of the border, told The Associated Press by telephone. "It sounded as if they were destroying the city."

The town is within walking distance from Lebanon, and at least two people were struck by bullets on the Lebanese side. They included an 11-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man, Lebanese security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

There was no immediate word on casualties in Talkalakh. But deadly violence was reported elsewhere in Syria, in Homs and Idlib provinces. At least nine people were killed nationwide, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which is a coalition of Syrian activists groups.

The reports of violence, and the activist groups' death toll for November, could not be independently confirmed. The regime has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.

Assad is depending on the strong support of Russia and China to withstand the sanctions and growing worldwide isolation.

Russia and China have vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria, arguing that NATO misused a previous U.N. mandate authorizing use of force in Libya.

On Friday, Russia's Ambassador Valery Loshchinin, whose nation has sold arms to Syria, said opposition groups are being armed and organized from abroad.

He echoed the Syrian government's argument that foreign powers looking to destabilize Syria are behind the unrest — not true protesters seeking more freedom and the end to dictatorship.

"Now, we hear, unfortunately, that the conflict in Syria continues to be fueled by outside forces who are interested in further destabilizing the situation," Loshchinin told the emergency meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

"Armed terrorist and extremist groups are being armed and organized, supplied with weapons and money from abroad," he said. "The situation in Syria must be resolved in strict observance of international law and the provisions of the United Nations Charter."

But U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe accused the regime itself of stoking the conflict "with propaganda about foreign conspiracies and domestic terrorism."

"The propaganda is fooling no one," Donahoe said. "The regime is driving the cycle of violence and sectarianism."

The 47-nation rights council passed a resolution backed by 37 African, European, Asian, Arab and American members chiding Syria for "gross and systematic violations of human rights."

Russia and China were among four countries to vote against the motion.

The resolution also established the post of a special human rights investigator to investigate abuses in Syria.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.