Beirut: A government owned Syrian newspaper on Saturday rejected US and European calls for President Bashar Assad to step down, saying they revealed the "face of the conspiracy" targeting Damascus for its key role in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The front-page editorial in the daily, which speaks for the Syrian regime, was the first official government response to Thursday`s demand by the United States and its European allies that Assad resign because of the government`s bloody crackdown on protesters.
Assad has come under mounting criticism for his assault on a 5-month-old uprising. Human rights groups and witnesses accuse Syrian troops of firing on largely unarmed protesters and say more than 2,000 people have been killed since mid-March.
Activists on Saturday raised the death toll from Friday`s protests to at least 29, most of them in the central province of Homs where security forces are said to be conducting raids in some neighbourhoods.
Reinforcements were being sent Saturday to Homs, Syria`s third-largest city and the site of intense anti-regime protests, according to the Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group.
"Shooting has not stopped since last night," Abdul-Rahman said, quoting residents.
The security operations in Homs and the coastal city of Latakia on Saturday come despite promises by Assad that the military and police operations against the uprising are over.
Friday`s shootings, which came as thousands poured into the streets across Syria, suggest the autocratic leader is either unwilling to stop the violence — or not fully in control of his own regime.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is facing the most serious international isolation of his rule after the US and European calls for him to leave.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama made his first explicit call for Assad to step down. A day later, European Union officials said the bloc`s 27 member states were considering more economic sanctions against Syria, including an embargo on oil, which could significantly slash the Damascus government`s revenues.
The daily added that sidelining Syria from the Mideast conflict is still a strategic aim for Israel, Washington and the West in general.
It noted that Syria has rejected any kind of foreign intervention in its internal affairs in the past, and said Damascus "will never permit anyone to do that (interfere) now."
Human rights groups say Assad`s forces have killed nearly 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March. A high-level UN team recommended Thursday that the violence in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes against humanity.
On Friday, the UN released the full text of its report on the crackdown.
It said Syrian government forces may have committed crimes against humanity by conducting summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children. The release includes rebuttals from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, offering a rare firsthand look into the regime`s justifications for the crackdown.