Activists: Syrian Troops Kill 52 Civilians in Saturday Attacks

Posted June 10th, 2012 at 5:25 am (UTC-5)
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Syrian activists say government forces killed at least 52 civilians in attacks across the country Saturday, as Syria's main exiled opposition group elected a Kurdish academic to try to unify the movement after months of infighting.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday's highest death toll was in Daraa, with 20 people killed in a pre-dawn bombardment of the southern town where a pro-democracy uprising began 15 months ago.

Activists said more people were killed in government shelling of the rebellious central city of Homs, and early-morning gunbattles between government and rebel forces in central Damascus. The casualties could not be independently confirmed.

Senior members of the opposition Syrian National Council chose Abdulbaset Sieda, a Kurd, to be the group's new leader at a meeting in Istanbul early Sunday. SNC members described Sieda as a moderate and consensus figure who is in his mid-50s and has lived in exile in Sweden. He replaces Burhan Ghalioun, who agreed step down last month under criticism of his leadership.

The SNC has been plagued by infighting since it was formed last year to try to present a credible alternative to the autocratic 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.

Speaking at Saturday's meeting, Sieda said the SNC should continue to reform itself to include more opposition figures and serve as the “real representative” of the Syrian people.

His election also may help the SNC 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.

In other developments, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz accused Syria of committing “genocide” against its own people and called for international military intervention in the crisis. In an interview on Israeli radio Sunday, he said world powers have failed to take action and criticized Russia for selling weapons to the Assad government, 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.