| 17.12,11. 03:00 AM |
17 Dead as Hundreds of Thousands Flood Syria Streets
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians protested nine months into their uprising on Friday, demanding the Arab League hasten its response to a bloody crackdown on dissent, as activists said security forces shot dead 17 people across the country.
Nine people were killed in the central province of Homs, three in the central province of Hama, three in the southern province of Daraa and two near the capital Damascus, the Local Coordination Committees reported.
Among the victims were two children and four women, the LCC, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, noted.
The protests came after Russia, a longtime ally of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, drew a guarded response from Western governments to signs of toughening its stance on Syria at the U.N. Security Council.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 200,000 protested in the besieged central city of Homs alone, venting their frustration at the Arab League for postponing a meeting on Syria scheduled for Saturday.
It also said at least six civilians were shot dead by security forces in Homs. A seventh person, wounded at dawn in Daraa province, cradle of the anti-regime dissent, also died of his wounds.
"More than 200,000 demonstrators came out in several neighborhoods of the city after Friday prayers," the Britain-based group said.
Demonstrators also took to the streets of Damascus and the protest hubs of Daraa, Deir al-Zour and Hama, according to the LCC.
Organizers had urged protesters to press the 22-member Arab bloc over its postponement of the emergency foreign ministers' meeting to give more time for Damascus to agree to a deal to end the bloodshed to avoid sanctions.
They had set the slogan for the protests as: "The Arab League is killing us -- enough deadlines."
On November 27, the Arab bloc approved a package of sanctions against Damascus after it failed to meet a deadline to agree to an observer mission to monitor implementation of an Arab plan to protect Syrian civilians.
But earlier this month, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Arab League Syria would accept monitors under certain conditions, including the lifting of the sanctions.
The bloc's number two Ahmed Ben Helli said late Thursday that Saturday's planned meeting had been postponed indefinitely while talks continued with Damascus on its offer.
However, a League taskforce chaired by Qatar will gather in Doha on Saturday with delegates from Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Oman, Ben Helli said.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi also met Thursday with members of the opposition Syrian National Council on the eve of the opening in Tunisia Friday evening of a three-day congress of the group.
SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said it was vital that the opposition close ranks after the formation in Istanbul on Thursday of the National Alliance, another opposition grouping.
"We need to unite the opposition and make it stronger. We need to emerge from this congress with a higher level of organization, clearer targets and more momentum," Ghalioun told Agence France Presse.
The SNC is generally regarded as the main civilian opposition coalition and includes the LCC, the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties.
However, announcing the formation of the National Alliance, Mohammed Bessam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, charged that the SNC had "lost contact with local revolutionary movements in Syria."
The opposition has been pushing hard for the Security Council to take tough action against Damascus after a European draft that would have threatened "targeted measures" against regime figures was blocked by Beijing and Moscow in October.
A draft of the new text circulated by Russia late on Thursday still makes no mention of sanctions but strongly condemns the violence by "all parties, including disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities."
In line with Moscow's insistence that its ally has been facing an armed rebellion not the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations cited by the West, the draft also raises concern over "the illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed renewed criticism of that position but said the United States hoped it could work with Russia on the text.
"There are some issues in it that we would not be able to support. There's unfortunately a seeming parity between the government and peaceful protesters," she said. "But we are going to study the draft carefully."
The Syrian crisis, which the U.N. estimates has left more than 5,000 people dead since mid-March, was to be discussed at talks Friday between U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara.
And a Kremlin source said Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa would meet officials in Moscow in a bid to defuse the crisis, Russian news agencies reported.
"He is to be received in Moscow for a serious conversation," said the source, who was not identified, adding that "anyone who thinks we are going to praise the vice president of Syria or pat him on the head is wrong."
It was not clear when the talks would be held, but unconfirmed reports said Sharaa arrived in Moscow on Friday and would meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Meanwhile, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki told France 24 he opposes foreign intervention in Syria -- reflecting the position of Russia and China.