US says Iran helping Syria crack down on protests



DAMASCUS- A global outcry over Syria's crackdown on protests widened on Thursday with the United States charging it was getting help from Iran and the European Union shelving plans for an economic association deal.
On the home front, Syria announced an amnesty for scores of prisoners detained since the protests erupted on March 15 and unveiled a new cabinet to replace the one that quit last month.



US says Iran helping Syria crack down on protests
"We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria ... in quelling the protesters," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.
"It's a real concern to us," he said. "If Syria is turning to Iran for help, it can't be really serious about real reforms."
The Syrian foreign ministry denied the American accusation, while there was no immediate reaction from Iran.
"The State Department spokesman declaration is without foundation," a ministry official told AFP in Damascus. "If the State Department has proofs, let it present them."
Earlier Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tehran was providing Syria with equipment to put down protests and to monitor opposition groups, citing US officials.
"We believe that Iran is materially assisting the Syrian government in its efforts to suppress their own people," officials told the paper, adding that Tehran was sharing "lessons learned" from the 2009 post-election crackdown on demonstrations that sought the ouster of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iranian authorities are also providing Damascus with technical assistance to monitor online communication from opposition groups to organise protests, US defence officials told the Journal.
As Washington turned up the heat on the Damascus regime, the European Union announced that it was dropping for now any plans for a long-delayed economic association agreement with Syria.
"The situation in Syria is a cause for extreme concern," said European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Butler.
"At this very moment, the most urgent priority is for Syrian security forces to stop using force against peaceful demonstrators and for Syria to commit seriously to reforms.
"Obviously, in the current circumstances, the signature of the agreement is not on the table," she underlined.
Ministers from the 27 European Union states said as far back as October 2009 that they were ready to ink the so-called association agreement.
In Damascus, state television said President Bashar al-Assad had "decided to free all those held against the backdrop of recent events, except those who committed criminal acts against the homeland and its citizens.
Human rights activists say scores of people have been rounded up since the demonstrations started, particularly in the protest centres of Daraa, south of the capital, and Latakia and Banias on the Mediterranean coast.
Around 150 people demonstrated in the southern town of Suweida, a bastion of Syria's Druze minority, on Thursday, Three protesters were briefly detained, an activist told AFP by telephone.
Recently appointed Prime Minister Adel Safar formed a new government, which was promulgated in a decree by President Bashar al-Assad, state television said.
Mohammed Naji Otri, who had been in office since 2003, resigned on March 29 and Safar, the then agricultural minister, was named on April 3 to replace him.
A day after a deal was struck for the army to restore order in the flashpoint city of Banias, snipers shot dead a soldier and wounded another, state news agency SANA said.
The killing came amid claims that several people freed after detention in the city charged they had been tortured.
London-based Rami Abdel Rahman Syrian, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told AFP by telephone: "There was a deal on Wednesday between Syrian officials and city residents for the army to enter Banias imminently to restore order."
His watchdog group said hundreds of those arrested had been released on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
But it added "some of those freed said they had been horribly tortured by their jailers."
Reliable casualty figures are impossible to obtain in Syria, but Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that at least 130 people had been killed up until then.
Officials have put the death toll at closer to 30 and blamed the violence on armed groups and foreigners seeking to divide the ethnically and religiously diverse country.
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Friday, April 15th 2011
AFP
           


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