Syrian troops open fire on pair of cities

Syrian troops attacked the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, just before dawn Sunday, killing dozens, in a bid to quell a five-month-old uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad, a human rights group said.

Arab League and Saudi king join global chorus of condemnation

Syrian protesters gather while chanting slogans in Maarat Al-Numan, near Aleppo, in this undated image taken from amateur video made available to Reuters on Friday. (Reuters)

Syrian troops fired on mourners at a funeral and raided an eastern city Sunday, killing at least 59 people in an intensifying government crackdown on protesters.

Outrage was intensifying as well: Syria's Arab neighbours forcefully joined the international chorus of condemnation against President Bashar Assad's regime for the first time.

Even the king of Saudi Arabia — whose country does not tolerate dissent and lent its military troops to repress anti-government protests in neighbouring Bahrain — harshly criticized the Syrian government and said he was recalling his ambassador from Damascus for consultations.

More than 300 people have died in the past week, the bloodiest in the five-month uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule.

Sunday's worst violence was in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where at least 42 people were killed.

"The city was bombed by all types of heavy weapons and machine-gun fire before troops started entering," an activist in the city said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"Humanitarian conditions in the city are very bad because it has been under siege for nine days," the activist said. "There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food and gasoline. The city is totally paralyzed."

The government's crackdown on mostly peaceful, unarmed protesters demanding political reforms and an end to the Assad family's 40-year rule has left more than 1,700 dead since March, according to activists and human rights groups. Assad's regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, which at times has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.

The regime intensified the crackdown a week ago on the eve of Ramadan, the holy month in which many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, then eat festive meals and gather in mosques for special nightly prayers. The government has been trying to prevent the large mosque gatherings from turning into more anti-government protests.

After sunset Sunday, thousands of people poured into the streets in areas around Syria, including the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs; the village of Dael in the south; the central city of Homs; Latakia on the Mediterranean coast; and the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group of activists tracking the Syrian uprising. There were reports of shootings but no immediate word on casualties, according to the LCC.

Saudi king denounces repression

Syria's crackdown had already drawn criticism and sanctions from the U.S. and many other countries, but the latest attacks brought a new wave of condemnation. Saudi King Abdullah demanded "an end to the killing machine and bloodshed."

"Any sane Arab, Muslim or anyone else knows that this has nothing to do with religion, or ethics or morals. Spilling the blood of the innocent for any reasons or pretext leads to no path to... hope," the king said in a statement.

Abdullah accused the Syrian government of a disproportionate response, and said it must enact speedy and comprehensive reforms to avoid a future of chaos.

The 22-member Arab League, which had been silent since the uprising began, said Sunday it is "alarmed" by the situation in Syria and called for the immediate halt of all violence. On Saturday, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council criticized Syria's "use of excess force."

Turkey, which borders Syria and until recently was a close ally and a major trade partner, said Sunday it would send its foreign minister to Damascus on Tuesday to deliver a strong message against the crackdown. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's patience was running thin and that Turkey could not remain a bystander to the violence.

Army attacks city

Most of Sunday's reported deaths were in Deir el-Zour, about 450 kilometres east of Damascus, where troops stepped up a siege that had already been going on for days. A pre-dawn raid on the city killed at least 42 people, said Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, and Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

An activist in the city told The Associated Press that the military attacked from four sides and took control of eight neighbourhoods.

Syrian official news agency SANA broadcast images of debris-laden streets in the central city of Hama, which has been under army siege and mostly abandoned by residents. (Associated Press)

Amateur video posted online by activists showed what they said were parts of Deir el-Zour with the sound of heavy cracks of gunfire and prayers blaring from loudspeakers. Another video showed Syrian troops on a hill as they positioned an anti-aircraft gun.

State-run Syrian TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying no tanks entered Deir el-Zour on Sunday and that troops were only removing barriers set by "terrorist groups at the entrances of the city."

The military offensive spread later in the day to the central town of Houleh in Homs province, 145 kilometres north of Damascus. Rihawi said at least 13 people were killed in Houleh, while Qurabi said the toll was 17.

State TV said a military force was ambushed near Houleh leaving three officers dead and three wounded.