Turkey demanded on Tuesday that Syria’s leaders stop the killing of civilians and said it would watch events in Syria in the coming days, raising pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who said his forces would continue to pursue “terrorist groups.”
“Developments in the coming days will be critical, for both Syria and Turkey,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a press conference in Ankara after returning from talks in Damascus. “Turkey’s main and first aim is for the bloodshed to be stopped and [for] an end to civilian deaths.”
Syrian tanks pressed on with an armored offensive in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, capital of an oil-producing province on the border with Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Residents said snipers killed one person on Tuesday as tanks thrust into main neighborhoods and roundabouts in the city.
Assad’s forces also raided villages around the besieged city of Hama, broadening a 10-day offensive there, and stormed the town of Binnish near the border with Turkey, activists and residents said.
The Syrian National Organization for Human Rights said Syrian forces killed at least 30 civilians in the assaults, most of them north of Hama, including two girls aged six and 11 from the same family.
Davutoglu said he had stated Turkey’s expectations clearly in talks with Assad and other Syrian officials, and had passed on a written message from Turkish President Abdullah Gul and an oral message from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish leaders, who once backed Assad, have repeatedly urged him to halt the violence and make urgent reforms after street protests against his autocratic 11-year rule erupted five months ago.
“We hope that those steps that will stop the bloodshed will be taken,” Davutoglu said.
Assad, who described the uprising as a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria, said there would be no let-up in military action.
“[Syria] will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens, but [Syria] is also determined to continue reforms ... and is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Davutoglu.
Washington expressed disappointment at Assad’s latest comments and said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expected to talk to Davutoglu after his meetings in Syria.
“It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community,” US Department of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked about the comments.
She refused to comment directly on a 2009 US diplomatic cable quoted by McClatchy newspapers last week describing Assad in unflattering terms, calling him “neither as shrewd, nor as long-winded as his father,” former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.
Rights groups say at least 1,600 civilians have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March, making it one of the bloodiest of the upheavals sweeping the Arab world.