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Syria Mines Border Escape Routes, Rights Group Charges

David Elkins

WASHINGTON, Mar 13 2012 (IPS) - The Syrian military has placed anti-personnel mines along its borders with Turkey and Lebanon, which have provided asylum for a large number of civilians fleeing the crackdown on year- long pro-democracy uprisings there, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Citing firsthand accounts from Syrian residents who witnessed troops laying the mines last week, Steven Goose, arms division director for the Washington-based HRW, strongly denounced the latest move by Bashar al-Assad’s government to quell resistance and prevent a mass exodus of Syrian citizens.

Anti-personal mines are notorious for civilian deaths and are considered to be ineffective tactical weapons.

“Any use of antipersonnel landmines is unconscionable…There is absolutely no justification for the use of these indiscriminate weapons by any country, anywhere, for any purpose,” Goose said in a press release Tuesday.

Syria is not a party to the 159-nation strong 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which “comprehensively prohibits the use, production, trade, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines.”

“(There is) only one reason why Syria would want to plant anti- personnel landmines at its borders: to murder civilians trying to escape it. Truly horrific,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweeted on Tuesday.

The landmines appear to be the latest in a series of deadly tactics used by the Syrian government to prevent civilians from escaping. Over past weeks, several human rights groups, including Refugees International, have documented Syrian troops shooting civilians trying to flee besieged cities in Syria.

The U.N. estimates that nearly 230,000 people have been displaced since the uprisings began last year, with close to 30,000 having already fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

The findings come as Western nations continue to grapple with the best policy approach toward ending the hostilities and providing aid for Syria’s most devastated populations – a task made more difficult by the contrasting political and strategic alignments of U.N. Security Council member states.

After Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution late last year that would have signaled a clear, unified message demanding that Assad stop the violence, step down, and work toward a peaceful transition, U.S. officials have ratcheted up diplomatic pressure to secure a binding resolution.

Last week, calls for a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria intensified after Senator John McCain advocated air-strikes to precipitate a toppling of Assad’s government.

“Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign air power,” McCain told lawmakers on the Senate floor last week.

Senior U.S. military officials remain sceptical about the feasibility of an aerial bombardment.

In congressional testimony last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said that the size of Syria’s conventional forces, its extensive, Russian-supplied anti-aircraft defence network, and its stockpile of chemical and biological weapons – one of the largest in the world – should all be cause for concern if policymakers decide to intervene.

Although the Barack Obama administration remains committed to a multilateral approach, in which any intervention would be predicated on international consensus, U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said during the same Senate hearing last week that he had been instructed to draw up preliminary plans for strike, even as diplomatic negotiations continued.

During a U.N. Security Council meeting Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the she “took note” of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavorov’s call for a peaceful solution and an end to the violence.

However, in a veiled denunciation of Russia’s intransigence at the U.N., she stated that the growing death toll in Syria should be met, rhetorically at the very least, with firm resistance from the international community.

“(T)he United States believes firmly in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member-states, but we do not believe that sovereignty demands that this council stand silent when governments massacre their own people, threatening regional peace and security in the process,” Clinton said.

“And we reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government’s military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defence.

“How cynical that even as Assad was receiving former Secretary- General Kofi Annan, the Syrian army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Rastan…The international community should say with one voice – without hesitation or caveat – that the killings of innocent Syrians must stop and a political transition must begin,” Clinton added.

After meeting with Assad over the weekend, Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, left Damascus without a conclusive agreement over a ceasefire or a plan for humanitarian relief.

“I’m expecting to hear from the Syrian authorities today since I left concrete proposals with them to consider, and once I receive their answer we will know how to react,” Annan said on Tuesday.

“We should put the interests of the people at the centre of everything that we do, and I know that the strong international community support, the whole world is coming together, is working with us to resolve this situation in Syria, and with goodwill and determination I am hopeful we will make progress,” Annan went on to say.

As the number of defections from the Syrian Army and government ministries increases, Syrian opposition parties, including the Syrian National Council, have yet to gain official international recognition as legitimate transitional authorities.

A small number of journalists reporting from inside Syria have indicated that Syrian public opinion is deeply divided over the pro- democracy protests. Assad has received firm backing from both Alawites and Christians, minority groups in Syria.

Turkey has announced that another “Friends of Syria” meeting will take place early next month, after a previous meeting held in Tunisia several weeks ago failed to garner much consensus over what action to take, if any.

Coming shortly after rebels were defeated in Homs, a bastion of regime opposition, the Arab League, in response to the most recent assault on Idlib, stated on Tuesday that President Assad’s government is responsible for crimes against humanity.

“We condemn the Syrian regime’s horrific violence against innocent civilians, and we are focused on the urgent humanitarian task of getting food and medicine to those in need,” President Obama and co- author UK Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in a Washington Post op- ed on Tuesday.

“With our international partners, we’ll continue to tighten the noose around Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts, and we’ll work with the opposition and the United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to plan for the transition that will follow Assad’s departure from power.”

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