Syrian foreign minister promises elections by end of 2011

Syrian foreign minister promises elections by end of 2011

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Saturday that "free and fair" elections for a new parliament representing the aspirations of the people will take place by the end of the year, dpa reported.

During a meeting with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus, al-Moallem said the Syrian leadership was committed to pushing ahead with reforms, the official SANA news agency reported.

The government has recently endorsed legislation allowing political parties to be established and to function alongside the Baath party, which has held power since 1963.

The law is part of reforms promised by President Bashar al-Assad to quell the demonstrations calling for his ouster.

Parliamentary elections were last held in 2007, and the four-year term of the current parliament expired in April.

The announcement came after Gulf states called for an "immediate halt to violence and bloodshed" in Syria after security forces killed at least 24 civilians in the latest round of anti-government protests.

The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also expressed concern over the "increasing violence and the excessive use of force which resulted in killing and wounding large numbers."

The GCC called for "resorting to wisdom, and implementing serious and necessary reforms that preserve the rights of the Syrian people, and meet their aspirations."

At least 24 civilians were killed Friday by security and army troops in demonstrations in several parts of Syria.

An army defector claimed in remarks published Saturday that troops had been ordered to commit genocide in the flashpoint southern city of Daraa.

"I and other (army) officers received orders from our commanders to carry out a genocidal operation in Daraa and were told not to spare the lives of women and children," Ahmed Khalef, a former officer in an elite army unit, told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

Khalef, who said he had served in the army for 10 years, added that he had refused to obey the orders.

"This was a sufficient reason for issuing an order to physically liquidate me," said Khalef, who has since fled the country.

Khalef estimated that around 4,500 army personnel had defected in the Syrian capital alone.

The paper said it would not disclose the whereabouts of the defector, at his request, for fear of reprisal.

More than 1,650 people and around 350 security personnel have been killed since pro-democracy protests against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March, local human rights advocates say.

These reports cannot be independently verified, as the Syrian authorities have barred most foreign media and international human rights from the country.

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