UN says Syria in 'civil war'

Syria has entered a state of civil war with more than 4,000 people dead and an increasing number of soldiers defecting from the army to take up arms against President Bashar Assad's regime, the top UN human rights official says.
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Al-Baidah , near Homson Monday. The banner reads To Arab league: the Syrian regime is liar and criminal. (Handout/Reuters)

Syria has entered a state of civil war with more than 4,000 people dead and an increasing number of soldiers defecting from the army to take up arms against President Bashar Assad's regime, the United Nations' top human rights official said Thursday.

Assad has been trying to crush an eight-month-old revolt against his autocratic rule, but the violence has only intensified.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the UN is putting the death toll for the revolt "at 4,000 but really the information coming to us is that it's much more than that."

"As soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms, I said this in August before the Security Council, that there's going to be a civil war," Pillay told reporters in Geneva. "And at the moment that's how I am characterizing this."

Growing pressure

The scathing criticism from Pillay comes as the pressure piles on Assad from home and abroad. On Thursday, the European Union imposed fresh sanctions on Damascus, and the Syrian opposition called a general strike inside the country.

The recent spate of economic sanctions from the EU, the Arab League and Turkey are punishing Syria's ailing economy, a dangerous development for the government in Damascus. Syrian business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges in the country, where the prosperous merchant classes are key to propping up the regime.

But the sanctions, coupled with increasing calls for strikes, could sap their resolve.

The new EU sanctions target 12 people and 11 companies and add to a long list of those previously sanctioned by the EU. The full list of names of those targeted will not be known until they are published in the official journal of the EU on Friday.

The 27-member bloc also imposed some sanctions on Syria's ally Iran in the wake of an attack this week by a mob on the British Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Iran of supporting Assad's crackdown, saying "there is a link between what is happening in Iran and what is happening in Syria."

Village stormed

The sanctions came as Syrian troops stormed a village in the central province of Hama, killing at least six people — the latest in what has become daily violence and bloodshed in the country.

It was difficult to gauge how widely Syrians were abiding by Thursday's strike, which activists announced on an opposition Facebook page. The regime has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.

Residents in Syria's two economic powerhouses — the capital, Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo — reported business as usual Thursday.

But in the flashpoint city of Homs, a resident told The Associated Press that most of the shops were closed, except for those selling food. Homs has been one of Syria's most volatile cities, with increasing clashes between troops and army defectors.

"Few people are in the streets and only about 20 per cent of students went to schools and universities," said one resident, who asked that his name not be made public for fear of government reprisals.

A video posted online by activists showed mostly closed shops in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, which also has seen large anti-regime protests.

Despite the recent diplomatic squeeze and Thursday's strike, the government has shown little sign of easing its crackdown.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said security forces swept through the village of Traimseh in the central province of Hama. The group said six people were killed, without giving further details.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said six people were killed and nine wounded in Traimseh. It added that the operation was continuing in the village.