Syrian forces break up protest


Syrian forces shot dead one person in the city of Hama today as they broke up a protest marking the anniversary of a 1982 massacre by troops loyal to president Bashar al-Assad's father, activists said.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces dispersed demonstrators in the Janoub al-Malaab district of Hama, where residents had planned to release 1,000 red balloons to mark the killing of more than 10,000 people when Hafez al-Assad's forces crushed an Islamist uprising.

Violence has raged on as diplomats at the United Nations wrangle over an Arab and Western draft resolution condemning today's Syrian authorities for a military crackdown on an 11-month-old revolt in which thousands of people have been killed.

Activists reported arrests and heavy gunfire in several areas and said at least 18 people were killed across Syria.Violence also returned to the main commercial hub Aleppo, which has so far remained largely on the sidelines of the uprising but which is now home to a growing opposition movement.

Eight soldiers were killed in clashes with army deserters in the southern province of Deraa and seven people were killed in Damascus province, where the government beat back rebels who temporarily seized towns last week.

Syria's government says foreign-backed militants are behind the uprising against 42 years of Assad family rule. Authorities prevented any commemoration of the Hama killings in all that time.

Activists had said protests would be held across Syria today after the main weekly Muslim prayers under the banner "Hama, forgive us".

Video footage on the Internet, purportedly filmed in Hama today, showed dozens of people in a sidestreet waving green, white and black rebel flags and chanting "freedom forever".

Yesterday, Hama residents coated many streets with red paint to mark the four-week assault on the city and the razing of its old town by Hafez al-Assad's forces in February 1982.

At the UN Security Council, Arab and Western drafters of a resolution condemning Syria's crackdown revised their text yesterday in an effort to avoid a Russian veto, though their draft included language Moscow has rejected.

Russia's deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said Moscow could not support the new draft, despite changes that addressed some of its concerns, but did not specify whether Russia would veto the resolution.

"This is not enough for us to be able to support it in this form," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Morocco circulated a new draft after Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a closed session of the 15-nation council that he would veto the draft if it were put to a vote today  with a phrase saying the council "fully supports" an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside, Western diplomats said.

That phrase remained in the text. But several diplomats said Mr Churkin's threat had more to do with the timing than the substance of the resolution and thought it might still be possible to persuade Russian to abstain or back the resolution.

"He made the threat, but I don't think he'll necessarily have to follow through with it," a diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "We included some new language that Russia wanted. It's still possible to avoid a veto."

Moscow has demanded language explicitly ruling out the use of external force in Syria, though the current draft makes clear the council wants the crisis resolved peacefully and the resolution could not be used as the basis for military intervention as in Libya's uprising last year.

The draft does not threaten Syria with sanctions, also rejected by Russia, but includes a vague reference to possible "further measures" in the event of Syrian non-compliance.

Morocco's UN envoy, Mohammed Loulichki, told reporters after yesterday's inconclusive council meeting he would seek a vote on the amended draft resolution "as soon as possible."

Colombian envoy Nestor Osorio said the council would continue discussions today on the draft, sponsored by Morocco, France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Portugal, Colombia, Togo, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Turkey.

A vote may not be imminent and further revisions could follow. France said it foresaw by Monday at the latest. Russia has balked at any language that would open to door to "regime change" in Syria, its most important Middle East ally.

Moscow has a naval base in Syria and is a major arms supplier to Damascus, and so bristles at outsiders trying to dictate internal political change in Damascus.

Overnight bombardment on the town of Anadan, a few kilometres from the second city Aleppo, killed one man and wounded five after insurgents and army defectors attacked roadblocks manned by loyalist troops. Rebels in Tel Rifaat, another town to the north, blocked the main highway to Turkey.

In Aleppo itself, gunfire was heard in two neighbourhoods.

Militiamen loyal to Assad, known as 'shabbiha', fired at random overnight at a third district where defiant calls of "God is greatest" echoed from roofs and windows.The state news agency Sana said three members of the security forces, including an army lieutenant, had been killed in a clash with an "armed terrorist group" in the southern province of Deraa.

The agency has reported military funerals of around 100 soldiers and police in the last week, adding to the 2,000 members of Assad's security forces who authorities reported late last year had been killed. It was not possible to verify activist or state media reports as Syria restricts access for independent media.

Opposition activists say Mr Assad's forces have stepped up operations around the country after appearing to crush rebels who brought the fight to the outskirts of the capital.

The surging violence in the last week prompted the Arab League to suspend its monitoring mission in Syria on Jan. 28, from which Gulf Arab observers had already withdrawn.