Syria’s president yesterday decreed a vote on a new constitution this month, which would effectively end nearly 50 years of single party rule, state media said, as troops reportedly stormed centers of dissent.
A day after flatly rejecting UN allegations of crimes against humanity over the crackdown, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the ballot for Feb. 26, in a move clearly aimed at placating growing global outrage over the bloodshed.
Under the new charter, freedom is “a sacred right” and “the people will govern the people” in a multi-party democratic system based on Islamic law, Syrian state television reported.
Al-Assad, who in April last year lifted a state of emergency in force since 1963 when his Baath Party came to power, has made repeated promises of reforms that have failed to materialise since the uprising broke out on March 15.
His latest came as activists said troops stormed the central city of Hama and stepped up their assault on protest hubs nationwide, defiant in the face of mounting Arab and Western efforts to end the bloodshed.
Further to the south, an explosion struck an oil pipeline at daybreak in the flashpoint city of Homs, with activists saying government forces bombed it from the air and state media blaming “armed terrorist gangs.”
Syria’s government on Tuesday rejected UN charges of crimes against humanity, as monitors accused Assad’s forces of launching one of their heaviest assaults yet in a 12-day onslaught on Homs.
And after Russia and China twice vetoed a resolution calling on Assad to stop the deadly attacks on civilians, diplomats said they would now seek a condemnation of the violence at the UN General Assembly today.
Rights groups say more than 6,000 people have been killed since government forces launched a brutal crackdown on protests calling for democracy, which were launched 11 months ago to the day.
The pipeline blast in Homs sent up columns of black smoke over the central city, according to footage uploaded by opposition activists to video-sharing Web site YouTube.
Activist Hadi Abdullah said it was the third such attack on the same pipeline, although this was the first time that it was targeted with aircraft.
“Around 6am, two military planes bombed a pipeline located on the edge of Baba Amr neighbourhood,” said Abdullah, of the opposition General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, citing witnesses.
The reported use of warplanes could not be immediately verified.
The General Commission said in a statement that the pipeline runs through Baba Amr, which has born the brunt of a sustained assault on Homs by regime forces since Feb. 4.
Syria’s government has attributed several similar attacks to foreign-backed “terrorists,” but the opposition accuses it of destroying energy infrastructure to punish dissenters.
Assad’s forces appear to have refrained from using air power to crush armed rebels to avoid a no-fly zone being imposed over the country.
On the ground, however, troops launched an assault on the city of Hama, just north of Homs, where loud blasts could be heard in the Hamidiyeh and other neighborhoods, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said ongoing clashes had killed 20 people, including nine civilians, in the town of Al-Atareb, northwestern Aleppo Province.