Syria's main exiled opposition group has elected a Kurdish academic to try to unify the movement after months of infighting, and activists report at least 19 more deaths in government shelling and clashes across the country.
Senior members of the opposition Syrian National Council chose Abdulbaset Sieda to be the group's new leader at a meeting in Istanbul that lasted from late Saturday until early Sunday.
The new SNC president urged Syrians around the world to act in solidarity with citizens in the country and encouraged members of Syria's armed forces to defect from their posts.
“They (the people of Syria) are still resisting the massacres and the crimes committed by the Syrian regime. I'm calling upon all the Syrian expatriate community to organize sit-ins before their Syrian embassies. I would also call for the international observers to go to Homs. The SNC is allocating $3 million in an urgent manner as a fund for the Syrian people who are suffering and areas which are in destruction. We also call for all those in positions of responsibility in the armed forces and the government to defect from the regime.”
Sieda's call for the United Nations to send monitors to Homs came as other Syrian activists reported more violence there on Sunday.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told VOA that fighting and shelling killed at least 12 people in Homs province. The Observatory later reported the death of a rebel fighter during a rebel bombing of a local authority building in the town of Qusayr. Casualties inside the building are still unknown.
Fighting elsewhere killed two soldiers in Daraa, a civilian in Idlib and two armed civilians near Aleppo. The Observatory chief also said a lawyer was killed Sunday in Damascus, where U.N. observers were dispatched to investigate reports of intense fighting from the day before.
Syrian activists say at least 96 people, mostly civilians, were killed in violence on Saturday across Syria. The Observatory said at least 20 died when pro-government forces bombarded the southern town of Daraa, where a pro-democracy uprising began 15 months ago.
The new opposition council president is in his mid-50s and lives in exile in Sweden. Other SNC members including Abdel Hamid Al Attassi described Sieda as a consensus figure.
“He is an academician. He is also well-known, a moderate man. We shouldn't claim that he has Islamic tendencies or secular tendencies. He has been approved and accepted by everyone.”
Sieda replaces Burhan Ghalioun, who agreed to step down last month under criticism of his leadership.
The SNC has been plagued by internal rivalries since it was formed last year to try to present a credible alternative to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ghalioun's critics complained that he gave Islamists too powerful a role in the SNC and did not do enough to coordinate with committees of youth activists organizing protests inside Syria.
Sieda's election as SNC chief may help the opposition council to boost its support among Syrian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population and have largely stayed on the sidelines of the anti-Assad revolt. Many Syrian Kurds fear they would continue to suffer discrimination if the majority Sunni-led opposition overthrows Mr. Assad's minority Alawite-led government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused Syria of massacring its own civilians with help from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, both allies of the Assad government.
“It is a sleight carried out not only by the Syrian government, it is being helped by Iran and Hezbollah, and the world must today see the focused axis of evil: Iran-Syria-Hezbollah. The face of this axis of evil has been exposed in its full ugliness.''
Earlier, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz accused the Syrian government of committing “genocide” and called for international military intervention. In an interview on Israeli radio Sunday, he said world powers have failed to take action and criticized Russia for selling weapons to Mr. Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow would support Mr. Assad's departure from power if the Syrian people agree on it. It was not clear if Lavrov's comment marked a softening of Russia's support for the Syrian president. Russia has repeatedly blocked Western and Arab efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on his government.
Speaking at a Moscow news conference, Lavrov reiterated Russia's rejection of any foreign military intervention in the Syrian conflict. He also repeated his call for nations supporting and opposing Mr. Assad to join an international conference to salvage a Syria peace plan drafted by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.