'Urgent' action sought on Syria


The United Nations' top human rights official today called for urgent international action to protect civilians in Syria, saying she was appalled by the Syrian government's military onslaught on the city of Homs.

Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, also implicitly criticised Russia and China for vetoing an Arab and Western move in the UN Security Council to get Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to quit.

"I am appalled by the Syrian government's wilful assault on the city of Homs, and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the city," Ms Pillay said in a statement.

Anti-Assad activists in Syria say that, after an overnight artillery bombardment, government forces are thrusting into rebel-held areas of Homs with tanks as troops fired rockets and mortars, leaving many dead.

Ms Pillay, a former South African high court judge, said it was extremely urgent "for the international community to cut through the politics and take effective action to protect the civilian population".

She said "the virtual carte blanche" granted to Syria by the veto of the UN resolution "betrays the spirit and the word" of a 2005 global accord on collective action to protect civilians when their government was failing to do so.

Her statement came as both Russia and China continued to defend their stance.

Meanwhile EU governments are moving toward stiffer sanctions on Syria, including a freeze on the central bank's assets and a ban on imports of  phosphates and precious metals from the country, an EU official said.

A consensus exists within the EU to toughen the sanctions against Dr Assad's regime, with details to be agreed in time for approval on February 27 by  EU foreign ministers, the official told reporters in Brussels today on condition of anonymity.

Taking sanctions on Iran's central bank as a model, the EU is working to craft the Syrian monetary curbs so as not to hobble Syria's trade completely, the official said.

A cutoff of phosphate imports will shut down a key source of revenue for the regime because Syria relies on European customers for 40 per cent of its sales, the official said.

In Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said it was "not really the international community's business" to try to determine the outcome of a national dialogue between government and opposition in Syria.

Militiamen loyal to Mr Assad shot dead at least 20 civilians when they stormed the homes of three unarmed families on the edges of opposition districts in the city of Homs today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The shabbiha [Mr Assad's militiamen] broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five - the father, wife and their three children, a family of seven in another house and eight in a third," dissident-in-exile Rami Abdelrahman, who heads the British-based Observatory, said.

There was no comment from Syrian authorities and the report could not be verified because the authorities have placed tight restrictions on access to the country.

Mr Abdelrahman said the attacks occurred near al-Fardaos roundabout and near al-Naziheen and Karm al-Zeitoun districts, where loyalist forces have been advancing after heavy bombardment of the city of one million, 140km north of the capital, Damascus.

He gave the names of the families as Ghantawi, Tirkawi and al-Zamel.

"The shabbiha are acting as if they are at the peak of their power and that they can do anything to prevent the Assad regime from falling," Mr Abdelrahman said.

He would not be drawn on the religion of either the attackers or the victims in the mixed city where sectarian killings have been reported and staunch Sunni Muslim districts have been main target of a large-scale armoured offensive by Mr Assad's forces that began on Monday.

On January 27th, Alawite shabbiha militiamen killed 14 members of a Sunni family in Homs in one of the grisliest sectarian attacks in the eleven-month uprising raging in the Alawite-dominated country, according to activists and residents said.

Eight children, aged eight months to nine years old were among 14 Bahader family members shot or hacked to death in a building in the mixed Karm al-Zeitoun, they said.

Members of the Alawite sect have been killed also by Sunnis opposed to Mr Assad who have taken up arms in the city, and abductions of Sunni Muslims and Alawites have been reported also in the last four months.

The shabbiha trace their origin to a group of Mr Assad's relatives in the coastal city of Latakia, who controlled businesses and touted AK-47 automatic rifles from black Mercedes S series limousines, nicknamed 'shabah' [the ghost].

Their numbers have grown since a popular uprising against 42 years of Assad family rule erupted in March, drawing in other members of Mr Assad's minority Alawite community, which has dominated the majority Sunni country for five decades.

The shabbiha are overwhelmingly Alawites in Homs and in the city of Hama further north, but large numbers of Sunnis have been recruited into their ranks in cities such as Aleppo and Damascus, according to opposition sources.