DAMASCUS: Pressure mounted on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday after a senior diplomat defected and Western powers drew up a 10-day sanctions ultimatum.
Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, announced he was joining a small but growing list of officials who have defected to the opposition, as the regime battles a near 16-month-old uprising.
“I announce my defection from my post as representative of the Arab Syrian Republic in Iraq and my withdrawal from the ranks of the (ruling) Baath party,” Fares said in a message aired on Al-Jazeera satellite channel late on Wednesday.
“I call on all free and worthy people in Syria, particularly in the military, to immediately rejoin the ranks of the revolution,” he said, adding: “Turn your cannons and your tanks towards the criminals in the regime who are killing the people.”
The defector has since taken refuge in Qatar, which has been among the most outspoken critics of Assad’s regime, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Thursday, quoted on Iraqi television.
Fares, who served as provincial governor around Syria and held senior security and Baath party posts, hails from a prominent Sunni tribe from eastern Syria, with members also in Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The foreign ministry in Damascus said Fares had been “discharged” after having made statements to the media “in contradiction with his duty, which consists of defending his country’s position.”
He would be “legally prosecuted and subjected to disciplinary action.”
In the latest clashes on the ground, regime forces on Thursday shelled the village of Treimsa in the central province of Hama, monitors and activists said, while at least eight people were killed across the country.
Lebanese security sources, meanwhile, said Syrian troops fired off dozens of shells in areas bordering northern and eastern Lebanon after firefights, adding that at least four people were injured inside Lebanese territory.
On Wednesday, 85 people were killed — 37 civilians, 34 soldiers and 14 armed rebels — the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, updating an earlier tally.
At the United Nations, Britain, France, Germany and the United States submitted a draft text that would give Assad 10 days to implement UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan or face tough new sanctions.
If Security Council members, including a reluctant Russia, approve it, the resolution would allow for non-military sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN charter if Syrian government forces keep up their offensive on cities.
Negotiations on the Western draft and a rival Russian resolution, which does not mention sanctions, are to start later Thursday in New York. A vote must be held before July 20, when the mandate of the UN observer mission in Syria ends.
The draft calls for an “immediate” end to violence by government and opposition forces and demands that President Assad’s troops return to barracks in line with the Annan plan and UN resolutions passed in April.
The resolution would renew the mandate of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria for 45 days, and calls on the mission to take on more political duties, moving away from monitoring a non-existent ceasefire.
Annan said on Wednesday the motion should include “clear consequences” for the regime if it fails to act, and reported that even Syria’s staunch ally Iran and nervous neighbour Iraq now “support the idea of a political transition.”
Syria has been gripped by a vicious civil conflict since March last year, when the regime attempted to brutally suppress a pro-democracy revolt and triggered a broader uprising by armed insurgent groups.
The regime and the opposition publicly accept Annan’s peace plan but fighting has raged on and rights monitors estimate that more than 17,000 Syrians have died over the past 16 months.
Turkey meanwhile said it has found no traces of explosives on the wreckage of a fighter jet it has claimed was downed by Syria, raising new questions about last month’s incident that inflamed cross-border tensions.
“No traces of explosives or flammable products were found on the debris recovered from the sea,” a statement from Turkey’s general staff said late on Wednesday, adding that other material was still being examined.
For the first time, the army also declined to use the term “shot down by Syria” instead referring to “our plane that Syria claimed to have destroyed.”
Human Right Watch on Thursday said Syrian regime forces appear to have used Soviet-made cluster bombs against rebel hideouts in a mountainous region of Hama province.
Two videos posted online appear to show unexploded sub-munitions and a bomb canister in Jabal Shahshabu, northwest of the city of Hama, said the New York-based group.
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