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Syria intensifies crackdown; activists say 59 dead

A Syrian protester holds a poster of President Bashar Assad during a protest in Cairo on Friday. 

Associated Press

A Syrian protester holds a poster of President Bashar Assad during a protest in Cairo on Friday. 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — 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 neighbors forcefully joined the international chorus of condemnation against President Bashar Assad's regime.

Even the king of Saudi Arabia — whose country does not tolerate dissent and lent its military troops to repress antigovernment protests in neighboring Bahrain — harshly criticized the Syrian government and said he was recalling his ambassador in 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. Not all were killed by bullets or tank shells: In the besieged city of Hama, where the government has cut off electricity and communications, a rights group said eight babies died because their incubators lost power.

Sunday's worst violence was in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where at least 42 people were killed, according to activists. The city was bombed by all types of heavy weapons and machine gun fire before troops started entering, an activist in the city told the Associated Press. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

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 antigovernment protests.

After sunset Sunday, thousands of people poured into the streets in areas around Syria, including the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs. They also gathered in 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 committee.

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

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 that his country's patience was running thin and that Turkey could not remain a bystander to the violence.

Syria intensifies crackdown; activists say 59 dead 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 10:38pm]
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