Syrian ally Iran urges dialogue, end to violence

September 8, 2011 - 5:50 AM

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces are keeping up a fierce assault on dissent as the embattled regime faces surprising calls for an end to the violence from its strongest ally, Iran.

Activists said there were reports of machine-gun fire and explosions as military vehicles stormed an area near the Turkish border Thursday.

President Bashar Assad's crackdown on the 6-month-old uprising has left the regime increasingly isolated.

Late on Wednesday, Syrian ally Iran joined the international chorus of criticism.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Assad should back away from his violent crackdown and talk to the opposition.

Ahmadinejad's comments to Portugal's Radiotelevisao Portuguesa, were broadcast with a simultaneous Portuguese translation.

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

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire Wednesday, killing at least 11 people and leaving thousands cowering in their homes as President Bashar Assad's troops kept up the government's assault on a 6-month-old uprising, activists and witnesses said.

Nine of the dead were in Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad's autocratic regime. Two others were shot dead during raids in Sarameen, in northern Syria.

In a step the opposition says shows the regime is intractable, a planned visit by the Arab League secretary general Wednesday to push Assad to make major concessions to defuse the crisis was called off at the last minute at the government's request.

Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Heli told reporters in Egypt that Elaraby will now visit Damascus on Saturday. He said the decision was made in a phone call between Elaraby and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

For days, security forces have been pursuing activists and anti-government protesters in Homs, part of a ferocious crackdown on the most serious challenge to the 40-year Assad dynasty. The U.N. says more than 2,200 people have died in nearly six months of protests.

"All through the night, there was shooting. The gunfire didn't stop," a resident of the city told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. "I can't tell exactly what is going on because it's dangerous to go out."

He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said security forces simultaneously stormed several districts in the old part of the city, including the Bab Dreib, Bab Houd and the Bayada neighborhoods. Nine people were confirmed dead in ongoing shooting in those areas, the LCC said.

The London-based Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across the country, said 10 were killed.

Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has seen some of the largest anti-regime protests in Syria over the past months, despite repeated crackdowns.

On Tuesday, security forces opened fire from a checkpoint in Rastan, just north of Homs, killing two people, including a 15-year-old boy, activists said. They said five unidentified corpses, including that of a woman, also were found dumped around the city center.

Mobile telephones, land lines and Internet connections in some parts of Homs were cut off Wednesday. Many people were staying home because of roads blocked by security forces. Others were too scared to leave.

State-run news agency SANA said a "terrorist group" kidnapped two Baath party officials in Rastan Wednesday. Authorities last week reported the kidnapping of the attorney general of the central city of Hama, Adnan Bakkour. Two days later, he appeared in a video announcing he had defected from the regime. Activists say he is now safely out of Syria. But authorities insist he was being kept against his will by gunmen and say they are searching for him.

Idilbi said there were reports of army defections in Homs Wednesday, saying fierce fighting took place between factions of soldiers. There have been credible reports of scattered, mostly low-level army defections in the past months, although it is difficult to gauge the extent.

An amateur video posted online by activists in Rastan showed a group of alleged army defectors in military uniforms saluting crowds calling for the regime's downfall from a balcony.

A particularly disturbing video making the rounds on social networking sites Wednesday showed a group of men in military uniform repeatedly shooting a man as he lay bleeding and motionless on the ground. The video, purportedly in Homs, says the men in uniform are pro-Assad thugs, not soldiers.

Syria has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and most international observers, insisting that foreigners are meddling, making it difficult to independently verify information coming out of the country. The government's violent crackdown has led to sharp international criticism and sanctions aimed at isolating the regime, including a ban on the import of Syrian oil, a mainstay of the regime.

Arab League officials in Egypt had said Secretary General Nabil Elaraby would have presented a plan under which Assad would immediately cease all military operations, release all political prisoners, begin dialogue and announce his intention to form a national unity government and hold pluralistic presidential elections by the end of his term in 2014.

The Local Coordination Committees, one of the main Syrian opposition activist groups, said the initiative provided "a good basis that can be built upon" as a way out of the crisis.

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AP writer Sarah El-Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt.

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Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram