Death Toll Mounts as Syria Marks Anniversary of Uprising

Posted March 15th, 2012 at 9:11 am (UTC-5)
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At least 23 people are reported dead as Syrian forces continue a crackdown on dissent Thursday, the first anniversary of the uprising, while state television showed rallies in support of President Bashar al-Assad in a number of cities.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 23 bodies were dumped in the northwestern Idlib region and some of the dead showed signs of torture. A state media report says government forces clashed with “remnants of armed terrorist groups” in the Idlib countryside, killing a number of “terrorists.”

With international efforts to end the crackdown stalled, Syrian government forces have overrun most of Idlib and launched their biggest raid in months on the southern city of Daraa – a town rebels call “the birthplace of our revolution.”

Rebel fighters have been in retreat throughout Syria and a movement of opposition activists has been fragmented with dissent. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday his country opposes arming the Syrian opposition, fearing the situation could become a “bigger catastrophe.”

In a new effort, a group of 200 non-governmental organizations is teaming with celebrities and activists in a campaign to stop Syria's violence. The initiative called Unite For Syria is using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to highlight calls for international help.

United Nations-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council Friday on his mediation efforts. Annan was in Damascus last weekend meeting with Syrian authorities.

U.N. council diplomats say Annan's assessment will be crucial to a bid by the United States and European allies to pass a resolution that would ensure humanitarian aid workers have access to besieged towns across the country. Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions condemning Syria.

Amin Saikal, the director of the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, told VOA he does not expect swift U.N. action.

“The international community, and more specifically the United Nations Security Council, is paralyzed on the basis of the Russian and Chinese opposition to adopt a position whereby greater pressure could be exerted on Assad's regime.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch called Thursday for the Syrian government to stop “indiscriminate shelling” of cities. It said witnesses described pro-Assad forces using machine guns, tanks and mortars to attack buildings and people in Idlib during the assault that began March 10.

As the government assault continues, Turkey said Thursday that 1,000 refugees had crossed into the country from Syria in the span of 24 hours, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees there to 14,000.

U.N. officials estimate that 8,000 people have died in the year-long series of protests and government crackdown. The Syrian government blames the unrest on “terrorists” and outside agitators.

Syrian state television showed crowds gathered for pro-Assad rallies across Syria Thursday. In Damascus, people waved flags and photos of Mr. Assad.