Syria activists fear new Baba Amr-like assault
DAMASCUS - Syrian activists voiced growing fears on Friday of a major assault like the one that devastated Baba Amr, on the eve of a first visit by new international envoy Kofi Annan.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands demonstrated across Syria after the main weekly Muslim prayers, notably in northern Aleppo, while at least 19 civilians were killed by security forces.
Troop reinforcements backed by tanks were massing in the northwestern province of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, in a bid to root out rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army, activists and a rights watchdog said.
Ahead of his visit Saturday to Syria, former UN chief Annan spoke out strongly against any foreign arming of the rebels, prompting Washington to echo his concerns about the dangers of further militarisation of the conflict.
Syrian ally Moscow hit out at a new US-led push at the UN Security Council for action on the crisis, describing a recently circulated draft resolution as "unbalanced" because it does not call for a simultaneous halt to violence by the government and the rebels.
Armoured units were deploying heavily around Idlib province's Jabal al-Zawiya hill district, where rebel fighters have been active, said Milad Fadl, a member of the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission.
"Large numbers of residents from eight villages in that area have fled," Fadl said, adding that people were also leaving the city of Idlib itself.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army had launched an assault Friday on four villages in the province and was hunting down rebels in the area.
There are concerns that Idlib could suffer the same fate as the Baba Amr neighbourhood of the central city of Homs, which was stormed by government troops on March 1 after a month of shelling.
On Wednesday, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos briefly visited the battered neighbourhood with a Syrian Red Crescent team.
"She says that the parts they saw were completely devastated," her spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said. "She said Homs feels like a city that has been completely closed down."
The Britain-based Observatory said 19 people were killed in violence nationwide on Friday, all of them civilians while two others died of previous injuries.
Mohamed Halabi, a local activist reached by telephone from Beirut, said there were 15 demonstrations taking place in the city of Aleppo and about 40 across the northern province.
"Security forces have opened fire at most of the demonstrations to disperse the crowds," he added. "In Aleppo city, there is a heavy security presence and arrests taking place."
He said the protests in Aleppo marked the largest turnout since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's regime broke out a year ago.
Demonstrators called for Assad to be executed and for the rebel Free Syrian Army to be given weapons, he said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said demonstrations also took place in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the uprising, in the coastal city of Latakia, in Homs, central Hama and Deir Ezzor in the east.
Speaking in Cairo, Annan urged "the Syrian opposition to come together to work with us to find a solution that will respect the aspirations of the Syrian people."
He warned against further militarisation of the crisis, amid a groundswell of international support for arming the rebels. The mostly army defectors who make up the Free Syrian Army are heavily outgunned by the regime forces they are battling in a number of flashpoint areas, including Idlib.
"I believe further militarisation will make the situation worse," Annan said after talks with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.
"I hope that no one is very seriously thinking of using force in this situation."
Washington, which had previously revealed it was looking at the possibility of providing "non-lethal" aid to the rebels, echoed his warning about the dangers of further militarisation.
"We have made very clear that we do not believe that it is right at this time to contribute to the further militarisation of the situation in Syria," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers that Washington was considering providing non-lethal aid to rebels in what would be the first direct US assistance to forces seeking Assad's downfall.
"We're considering an array of non-lethal assistance," Panetta said.
Regarding the new UN draft resolution on the crisis, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said "we cannot agree with the draft resolution in the form it is being presented in today. The text of the resolution under discussion is unbalanced."
Gatilov, quoted by Interfax news agency, said Russia was receiving reports that the Security Council intended to put the resolution up for a vote on Monday.
"It is unacceptable to tie the adoption of any text with a deadline. The time factor is not the most important thing."
Along with China, Russia vetoed two previous Security Council drafts on the year-long crisis, and Gatilov strongly urged world powers not to rush ahead with the vote.
China said on Friday it was sending an envoy to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France to explain its position on the conflict.