Syrian troops killed 20 people in a tank assault on the eastern city of Deir al-Zor yesterday, an activist group said, despite a direct UN appeal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop using military force against civilians.
The assault on Deir al-Zor, capital of a restive oil--producing province, began one week after Assad sent the army to seize control of Hama, focal point of nearly five months of protest against his autocratic rule.
Facing international condemnation, including from Syria’s regional allies, Assad defended the military campaign against what Damascus calls an armed insurrection.
“Dealing with outlaws and convicts who stage highway robbery and seal off cities and terrorize the population is a national duty,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling visiting Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour.
The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union said most casualties in yesterday’s attack on Deir al-Zor were in al-Joura District in the west of the city.
The military assault on Deir al-Zor, about 400km north east of Damascus, was launched a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Assad he was alarmed by the escalating violence and demanded he rein in the army.
“In a phone conversation with President Assad ... the Secretary-General expressed his strong concern and that of the international community at the mounting violence and death toll in Syria over the past days,” the UN press office said.
Ban “urged the president to stop the use of military force against civilians immediately,” it added.
Residents of Deir al-Zor, situated on the Euphrates river in a province bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland, had been bracing for an assault on their city.
A video posted on the Internet last week showed a tribal meeting discussing preparations for armed resistance to any military move against them.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who forged close ties to Assad, but has been sharply critical of the crackdown, said his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, would visit Damascus tomorrow.
“Our message will be decisively delivered,” he said.
Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban hit back, criticizing Ankara for failing to condemn “the savage murders of civilians and military men by armed terrorist groups.”
“If ... Davutoglu is coming to Syria to deliver a decisive message, then he will hear even more decisive words in relation to Turkey’s position,” Shaaban said.
An official source also criticized a statement by Gulf Arab states who broke months of silence on Saturday to express concern about the violence in Syria.
The source, quoted by SANA, said the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council had ignored the “killing and sabotage carried out by armed groups.”
Syrian authorities say gunmen have killed 500 police and soldiers since March. Reinforcing the message that Syria faces an armed revolt backed by outside forces, state television broadcast footage yesterday of 250 shotguns, explosives and ammunition it said were seized at the border with Lebanon.
Rights groups say Syrian security forces have killed at least 1,600 civilians since the start of the protests.