Syrian troops attack southern town, 8 killed
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian troops have shelled a southern town with tanks and artillery, killing at least eight people, including an 11-year-old girl, in the latest crackdown by President Bashar Assad's regime, a human rights activist said Wednesday.
The announcement comes as the government is expected to begin releasing political prisoners in a move rejected by the opposition as an effort to buy more time amid calls for Assad's ouster.
The activist, Mustafa Osso, said government forces have gained control of the southern town of Hirak, which is near the city of Daraa where the uprising against Assad's autocratic regime began in mid-March.
Osso said the army began attacking the town on Sunday and the eight deaths occurred over the past two days, including 11-year-old Malak Munir al-Qaddah who was shot to death by troops late Tuesday. He said scores of people have also been detained.
The treatment of children has emerged as a flashpoint issue after the alleged torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy.
State-run Syrian TV said Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar ordered an investigation into Hamza al-Khatib's death, which has led to widespread outrage after images of his body with what appeared to be marks of torture and gunshot wounds was shown on YouTube and Al-Jazeera TV.
Al-Jazeera did not air the whole video, but a copy posted by opposition on YouTube showed that the boy's sexual organ was cut off and that his neck was broken. The color of his body, lying on a plastic sheet, looked pink and bruises and black marks could be seen on the teenager's eyes.
Opposition groups blamed security forces for the boy's death.
State-TV aired an interview late Tuesday with Dr. Akram Shaar, who examined al-Khatib's body. He said the cause of the death was shooting, and three bullets had hit the boy's body. He added that what appeared to be bruises and signs of torture were the result of natural decomposition of the body since the boy died on April 29. His body was handed over to his family on May 21, state TV said.
The station also aired a recorded interview with al-Khatib's father who said he was received by Assad this week. The father added that the president considers "Hamza as his son and was touched" by the death.
Other military operations were ongoing in the central towns of Tabliseh, Rastan and Teir Maaleh, where a crackdown that began Saturday has claimed the lives of 16 people, according to Osso.
Rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed in the regime's crackdown on the uprising, the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year rule. The government claims the uprising is the work of Islamic extremists and armed gangs.
On Tuesday, Assad issued a general amnesty for prisoners that includes those deemed to have committed political "crimes," an offer that was swiftly rejected by the opposition as just another plot by the regime to gain time.
Syrian state television said the amnesty covered "all members of political movements," including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which led an armed uprising against Assad's father in 1982. Membership in the party is punishable by death.
The amnesty could affect some 10,000 people who Syrian activists say have been rounded up since the protests against the Assad regime broke out in mid-March. The release of political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition, but activists say it is occurring too late.
Osso said he expects authorities will begin releasing the nearly 3,000 political prisoners on Wednesday. He said they will include Muslim Brotherhood members, as well as members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy from Turkey since 1984.
Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said that the systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces in Daraa since protests began strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity.
In a 57-page report focusing on violations in Daraa province, the New York-based rights group said the U.N. Security Council should impose sanctions and possibly refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. It said 418 people have been killed in the Daraa province alone since the uprising began.
"For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They need to stop -- and if they don't, it is the Security Council's responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)