Syria bloodletting spurs new Arab League warning
DAMASCUS - Clashes between Syrian troops and suspected deserters reportedly killed 17 soldiers, activists said Saturday, as Arab foreign ministers condemned the murder of dozens of civilians during anti-regime protests.
The latest civilian bloodletting came on Friday as worshippers emerging from weekly Muslim prayers swarmed streets in the central protest hub of Homs and other towns urging a Libya-style no-fly zone to protect civilians and encourage army deserters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed at least 36 people and reported that at least 17 Syrian soldiers were killed later in overnight clashes between troops and suspected deserters in Homs.
An activist on the ground quoted by the Observatory said "more than 40 people were killed or wounded and two armoured vehicles destroyed" in the fighting in Bab al-Sebaa district after an officer and dozens of soldiers defected.
Renewed clashes broke out Saturday in Duwar al-Rayess neighbourhood of Homs where a loud blast was heard after an armoured car was hit, the Observatory said, adding that smoke could be seen billowing from a government building.
And three civilians were killed and several wounded by gunfire from Syrian forces in the neighbourhoods of Baba Amr and Deir Balaa, the Observatory said.
It also reported that 10 people were arrested by the security forces during a raid and search operations in the village of Dweir, in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Friday's violence prompted a new stern warning from the foreign ministers of the 22-strong Arab League which called on member Syria to stop the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
"The Arab ministerial committee expressed its rejection of the continued killings of civilians in Syria and expressed its hope that the Syrian government will take the necessary measures to protect them," they said.
An Arab League ministerial committee on Syria met Wednesday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a bid to spur a dialogue between him and the opposition.
The task force is due to meet with Syrian officials on Sunday in Qatar to try to reach "serious results and an exit to the Syrian crisis," the Arab League said.
Most of Friday's killings took place in Homs and in Hama, in the north, as Syrian security forces encircled mosques to prevent anti-regime demonstrations and fired live rounds on protesters, the Observatory said.
More than 100 people were wounded and 500 arrested, it said.
Hama and Homs are at the front line of the anti-regime protests that have rocked Syria since mid-March, since when the UN estimates more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.
The Observatory's chief Rami Abdel Rahman said in Nicosia that Homs had seen the "highest number of martyrs to date," accounting for 40 percent of protesters' deaths over the past seven months.
The latest violence was the deadliest in nearly six months to occur on a Friday, the day worshippers emerging from weekly prayers at mosques defy the security forces and swarm the streets to rally against the regime.
The bloodiest Friday was on April 22, when the death toll reached 72.
Each Friday protesters rally around a theme.
This time they demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians and to encourage soldiers to defect -- like the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya that helped topple leader Moamer Gathafi.
"We call on the international community to impose a no-fly zone so that the Syrian Free Army can function with greater freedom," the Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the main movers behind the dissent, said on its Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the US firm Blue Coat Systems which specialises in Internet censoring equipment on Friday confirmed that Syria was using its products to block web activity.
And a Syrian-born US citizen Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, pleaded not guilty in a US court to charges he had spied on anti-Assad protesters for Syrian intelligence. He was remanded in custody for trial on March 5.