Syrian troops hit rebel strongholds

Syrian troops attacked rebel strongholds in Deraa where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted nearly a year ago, and the UN chief said crimes against humanity had almost certainly been committed in Syria.

The assault on Deraa followed a thrust against rebels in the cities of Hama and Homs, which has faced nearly two weeks of bombardment from Assad’s forces, in an apparent campaign to crush the revolt against his repressive rule.

Assad has intensified a crackdown on protesters and insurgents, while also setting a February 26 referendum on a draft constitution that would formally end the Baath Party’s monopoly on power, to be followed by a multi-party parliamentary election.

Syria’s opposition and Western powers dismissed the promised reforms and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking before a non-binding vote at the United Nations on a draft resolution aimed at increasing pressure on Assad, said crimes against humanity had almost definitely occurred in Syria. “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old jailed and abused. We see almost certain crimes against humanity,” he told reporters in Austria.

Ban later had talks with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe during which the UN leader said the top priorities were to stop the violence and establish humanitarian access, a UN statement said. He said all relevant UN agencies were coordinating efforts to provide relief to Syrians.

China, which along with Russia blocked a draft resolution at the UN Security Council on February 4 backing an Arab call for Assad to step down, said it was sending a senior envoy to Syria.

“(China) does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change,” Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said.

Zhai, who will visit Syria today, said China believed “sanctions or the threat of sanctions are not conducive to the appropriate resolution of this issue.”

Juppe said agreement at the Security Council was possible with Russia to halt the bloodshed, and that France was ready to work on a new resolution to provide humanitarian aid to Syrians.

Mubarak

* Lawyers defending ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak will make their final statements in court next Wednesday when the presiding judge will set a date to announce his verdict on charges which include killing protesters and abusing power.

The 83-year-old former president, his former interior minister and senior police officers are facing a number of charges including involvement in the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

Mubarak and his two sons are also charged with corruption during office.

More than 850 people were killed in the uprising that unseated Mubarak.

A military council has ruled the country since then.

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