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Updated: June 2, 2011 17:21 IST

Syrian troops pound central town; at least 43 die

AP
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Syrians walk past Srian flags with portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad at a popular market in downtown Damascus. File photo: AP.
Syrians walk past Srian flags with portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad at a popular market in downtown Damascus. File photo: AP.

Since mid—March, when protests swept Syria inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, the regime has killed more than 1,100 people, according to human rights groups.

Syrian government troops pounded a central town with artillery and heavy machinegun fire on Thursday, a day after authorities released hundreds of political prisoners and the president set up a committee for national dialogue in an effort to end a 10—week uprising against his regime, activists said.

The bombing of the town of Rastan in central Syria started on Tuesday and has killed at least 43 people so far, according to Rami Abdul—Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Another Syrian rights group, the Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document the country’s protests, said the Rastan shelling killed several members of the same family early on Thursday when a shell hit Taam Tlass’ home. It said two mosques and a major bakery were also damaged.

The group said that among those killed in Rastan was four—year—old girl Marwa Hassan Shakhdo, who died on Wednesday.

The shelling of Rastan and nearby towns is part of a major clampdown Syria launched on Saturday in the central province of Homs, which has seen persistent protests against President Bashar Assad.

Since mid—March, when protests swept Syria inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, the regime has killed more than 1,100 people, according to human rights groups.

What began as street demonstrations calling for reforms and change evolved into demands for Mr. Assad’s ouster in the face of the violent crackdown.

The Syrian opposition called for more protests on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, to commemorate the nearly 30 children who have also been killed in the uprising.

The images of children who activists say were killed during the government crackdown have circulating widely among Syrians on YouTube, Facebook and opposition websites, shocking the public and stoking even more fury against a regime the opposition says has lost all legitimacy.

The government has tried to ease tension and end the 10—week revolt. On Wednesday, authorities released more than 500 prisoners, including some who took part in the latest demonstrations marking the most serious challenge to the Assad family’s 40—year rule.

The release came after Mr. Assad issued an amnesty that was said to cover “all members of political movements,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, which led an armed uprising against Assad’s father in 1982. Membership in the party is punishable by death.

Syrian activists say 10,000 people have been rounded up since the protests began.

Also on Wednesday, the government set up a national dialogue committee, tasked with laying the groundwork for Syrians to discuss their political future.

Such concessions would have been unimaginable only months ago, but protesters have already rejected the amnesty as too little, too late.

The United States and France said the amnesty would not be enough.

“We need to see all political prisoners released, and we need to see an end to the violence that Syrian forces have been continually carrying out against civilian populations,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday in Washington. “The gesture of releasing a hundred or so political prisoners doesn’t go far enough, and I think that the Syrian people would feel that way.”

Mr. Toner said the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, met on Tuesday with Syrian officials and raised the administration’s concerns over the crackdown, but he declined to elaborate.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the France Culture radio station that Syrian authorities must be “much clearer, much more ambitious, much bolder than a simple amnesty.”

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