Syrian forces shell city as nations vary on plan

A Syrian boy holds the remains of mortar shells allegedly fired by the Syrian Army as mourners carry the coffin of 13-year-old Ahmad bin Muhsin Qarush during his funeral March 24, 2012, after he was said to have been killed two days earlier in shelling by regime forces in Sermin, Syria.
AFP/Getty Images

(AP) BEIRUT - Syrian forces fired shells at a central city that has come to symbolize the anti-government uprising Monday, activists said, while the country's Muslim Brotherhood branch said it would work for a democratic state if President Bashar Assad falls.

The announcement by the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was an appeal by the Sunni Muslim group to minorities who fear for their place in a post-Assad Syria.

Since the uprising started last March with protests calling for political reform, it has stoked tensions among Syria's varied religious and ethnic groups.

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Many in the opposition are from the country's Sunni majority. Religious minorities — Christians, Shiites and Alawites, who include Assad — have largely stuck by the regime, fearing new rulers could threaten their communities.

Speaking to reporters in Turkey, Brotherhood official Ali Bayanouni said the group would not monopolize power.

"The regime now is accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to control Syria alone and of having aims of being the only rulers of Syria in the future," he said Sunday. "We are here today to reassure everyone that we will cooperate with all the other partners in the Syrian opposition to build a new Syria, a free Syria, a democratic Syria, and we will not attempt to the be the only ruling party in Syria."

The group issued a 10-point statement on the future of Syria, calling for a modern, democratic state with equality among all citizens and respect for human rights.

The reassurance came after Islamist parties catapulted to power in Tunisia and Egypt in the wake of Arab Spring uprisings, feeding concerns about religious and secular freedom there.

The movement has had no strong presence inside Syria since 1982, when Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, ordered the military to quell a Brotherhood rebellion in the central city of Hama, sealing off the city in an assault that killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

Membership in the group inside Syria is punishable by death, but the group has remained active outside Syria's borders.

Syria's uprising has become increasingly militarized, with many in the opposition arming themselves in self-defense or to attack government troops. The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the yearlong conflict.

The U.S., Europe and many Arab countries have condemned violent crackdowns by Assad's security forces and called for him to resign.

International envoy Kofi Annan said Monday that there can be no deadline for ending the Syria crisis, but it can't be allowed to drag on indefinitely.

Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, spoke in Moscow after meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

"I told the parties on the ground: they can't resist the transformational winds that are blowing," he said. "They have to accept that reforms have to come, change has to come, and that is the only way to deal with the situation."

While the U.N. is not discussing military intervention, Annan said it could send teams to monitor an eventual cease-fire.

Moscow supports Annan's mission, but Russia and China have protected Syria from condemnation by the U.N. Security Council.

Turkey, which once had strong ties to Damascus, has now become a tough critic, even allowing opposition groups to organize on its soil.

A Foreign Ministry official said Monday that Turkey was closing its embassy in Damascus because of security concerns. The Turkish ambassador and other diplomats will return to Turkey, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Turkey's consulate in the northern city of Aleppo will remain open, according to a statement posted on the embassy's website late Sunday.

Norway also said Monday it was closing its embassy.

Other countries, including the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have already closed their embassies.

The situation in Syria is set to be a primary topic at an Arab League summit opening in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters Monday he believes Arab leaders will agree on a "doable" solution to end the conflict in Syria in line with Arab League proposals.

"It's not up to other countries to dictate to the Syrians what kind of leaders they have or don't have," he said. "I don't think there will be a call on Bashar to step aside."

A previous effort to stop the violence by sending Arab monitors failed to stop the violence, and opposition leaders accused the Assad regime of using the mission as a stalling tactic.

Syria, whose Arab League membership has been suspended, will not attend the summit.

Assad's forces kept up offensives against opposition areas on Monday, but they faced resistance from armed rebels in some places. Activists said regime forces shelled parts of the central city of Homs and carried out arrests raids elsewhere.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight civilians were killed in Homs, half of the day's total death toll. Two of the dead appeared to have been tortured, it said. Both were recently arrested in the southern province of Daraa.