Syria forces sweep Aleppo as Assad promises reform

AMMAN Tue Jun 21, 2011 9:00am IST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus, June 20, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/Sana/Handout

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus, June 20, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.

Credit: Reuters/Sana/Handout

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces have extended a security sweep near the Turkish border to the merchant city of Aleppo, activists said, as President Bashar al-Assad pledged reforms that protesters said failed to meet popular demands.

Tens of students at Aleppo University were arrested on Monday and 12 people, including a mosque preacher, were detained in the nearby village of Tel Rifaat, halfway between Aleppo and the Turkish border, following protests, rights campaigners said.

Protesters at the university campus had criticised a speech by Assad, only his third since the uprising against his rule began three months ago, inspired by popular protests across the Arab world that ousted autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.

In the speech given at Damascus University, Assad reiterated a commitment to "national dialogue" and promised new laws on the media and parliamentary elections but activists were dismissive and the United States demanded "action, not words" from Assad.

Syrian rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed and 10,000 detained in a fierce military crackdown.

"Road blocks in Aleppo are noticeably more today, especially on roads leading north toward Turkey and toward the east. I saw military intelligence agents arrest two brothers in their 30s, apparently just because they were from Idlib," a resident of Aleppo, who owns an import business, told Reuters by phone.

He was referring to the northwestern province where troops and tanks have been deployed in towns and villages for the past 10 days to quell protests against Assad, according to witnesses.

The military assault has sent thousands of refugees streaming over the nearby border into Turkey.

Central neighbourhoods in the mixed city of Aleppo, Syria's second biggest, have been largely quiet, with a heavy security presence and the political and business alliance intact between Aleppan Sunni business families and the ruling hierarchy, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Syria, a country of 20 million, is mainly Sunni, and the protests demanding political freedoms and an end to 41 years of Assad family rule have been biggest in mostly Sunni rural areas and towns and cities, as opposed to mixed areas.

TURKEY SAYS CRITICAL WEEK AHEAD

Ankara has become increasingly critical of the Syrian president, having previously backed him in his drive to seek peace with Israel and improve relations with the United States.

A senior Turkish official said on Sunday that Assad had less than a week to start implementing long-promised political reforms before "foreign intervention" begins, although he did not specify what this might mean.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, speaking ahead of the EU meeting, said Assad had a last chance to "concretely start reforms", but added that many people were losing hope.

Under mounting international pressure and facing wider street protests despite the military crackdown, Assad said that Syria was facing security threats and accused "saboteurs" among the protesters of serving a foreign conspiracy to sow chaos.

Following the speech, protesters took to the streets across Syria, with cities like Hama and Deir al-Zor seeing large night-time demonstrations, residents said.

In Hama, scene of a 1982 attack to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood that killed thousands of civilians during the rule of Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, protesters chanted "damn your soul, Hafez".

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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