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Clashes kill 31 in Syria, EU hails opposition body

Assad`s crackdown on six months of protests against his 11-year rule has killed 2,900 people, the United Nations says.



Beirut: At least 31 people were killed across Syria in the latest wave of violence, notably clashes between gunmen believed to be army deserters and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a Syrian activist group said on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday`s death toll included 17 members of the army and security forces as well as 14 civilians, many of them in the city of Homs, where heavy gunfire was heard again early on Monday.

Assad`s crackdown on six months of protests against his 11-year rule has killed 2,900 people, the United Nations says, prompting the United States and European Union to impose sanctions and seek a UN resolution against Damascus.

European Union foreign ministers welcomed the creation of a national council by Syria`s disparate opposition as a "positive step forward" and called on other countries to do the same.

Damascus warned on Sunday it would take "tough measures" against any state which formally recognized the council.

Syria says it faces foreign-backed terrorist groups who it says have killed 1,100 soldiers and security personnel. International media are mostly barred from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from authorities and activists.

Demonstrations have been mainly peaceful, although often dispersed by force. However, reports of Sunni Muslim conscripts deserting and turning their guns on security forces, dominated by Assad`s minority Alawite sect, have been increasing.

While most opposition figures say they are still seeking to overthrow Assad by peaceful means, the most senior army officer to defect said last week that the force was only way.

The British-based Observatory said suspected deserters killed eight soldiers in simultaneous attacks on three army posts in the northern province of Idlib on Sunday.

In Homs, seven civilians were shot dead and another eight people were later killed in clashes between troops and suspected deserters, the group said.

Heavy machinegun fire overnight and early on Monday partially destroyed at least five houses in the Bab Sabaa district of the city, while in the Khalidiya neighborhood security forces raided houses and arrested 27 people, it said.

Violence, Kidnapping

Homs has seen some of the worst violence in recent weeks, including attacks on local officials and university staff.

Many activists blame pro-Assad shabbiha militiamen for those killings, but some targets appear to have had links with authorities, who say their opponents were behind the deaths.

"There are ... parties who are financing and arming groups in Syria, that are spreading sectarian violence, kidnapping people, assassinating our best scientists, our best doctors, in an attempt to try to tear the country apart" presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said in Malaysia.

Shaaban said she had told officials in Kuala Lumpur that Syria was "pressing ahead with the reforms that are answering the legitimate demands of our people."

Assad formally ended decades of emergency rule and promised a multi-party parliamentary election next year, but activists say the moves have made no difference, with killings, torture, mass arrests and army raids intensifying in recent weeks.

The grassroots Local Coordination Committees said Homs echoed to the sounds of bombs, grenades and heavy fighting on Sunday, adding it had names of 180 people killed in Homs last month and another 73 killed in the first nine days of October.

Syria blames armed groups for the violence gripping the country, and has warned its critics abroad not to grant diplomatic recognition to the new opposition council.

"We will take tough measures against any state which recognizes this illegitimate council," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Damascus on Sunday, drawing a riposte from the French Foreign Ministry the next day.

"The Syrian authorities are wrong to think that threats, intimidation or assassinations will allow them to keep the Syrian people or those who support their legitimate hopes for freedom and democracy, silent," said spokesman Bernard Valero.

Despite the EU statement on Monday, there is little sign that the 27-nation bloc is preparing to recognize the council as the legitimate representative of Syrians, as many countries did the Libyan rebels who subsequently overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.

Bureau Report

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