AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed 15 civilians in the city of Homs on Wednesday, an activists’ group said, despite international calls for President Bashar al-Assad to end a bloody crackdown on protests against his rule.
The United States said the world was watching Syria “in horror” and slapped sanctions on a Syrian bank and mobile phone company. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who sent his foreign minister to Damascus on Tuesday to urge an end to the bloodshed, said Syria “is pointing guns at its own people”.
At least 1,700 civilians have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March, rights groups say. Syria says 500 soldiers and police have died.
State television said the army pulled out of the central city of Hama after a 10-day campaign in a symbolic protest centre in which scores of people were reported killed, and showed footage of troops leaving the northern town of Idlib.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an armoured force killed at least 15 civilians in an assault on the Bab Amro residential district of Homs on Wednesday evening.
“The neighbourhood is witnessing a massacre,” Observatory director Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters. Forces deployed in Homs, 165 km (100 miles) north of the capital Damascus, three months ago and occupied the main square, after large protests demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.
Abdelrahman said two people were also killed in the suburbs of Damascus while a woman was killed earlier when troops and tanks swept into two northern towns near the Turkish border.
Syria has banned independent media from Homs and the rest of Syria, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
In Deir al-Zor, residents reported heavy gunfire as troops deployed across the eastern city, making arrests, bombarding a mosque and spraying pro-Assad slogans on buildings.
The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama believes Syria would be better off without Assad and the United States plans to keep pressure on the Syrian government.
“We are all watching with horror at what he is doing to his own people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Earlier the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions which it said were aimed at the financial infrastructure helping to hold up Assad’s government.
It said it was designating the Commercial Bank of Syria, a Syrian state-owned financial institution, and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, under a presidential executive order that targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters.
It also designated Syriatel, Syria’s largest mobile phone operator, under an executive order targeting Syrian officials and others responsible for human rights abuses in the country.
The Turkish leader said he hoped that Assad, confronting nearly five months of pro-democracy demonstrations, would take steps within 10 to 15 days towards promised political reforms.
Already under Western sanctions targeting him and his top officials, Assad faces growing pressure to curb the bloodshed. Three regional powers publicly called for change this week, leaving Iran as Syria’s only staunch remaining ally.
Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia condemned the violence and recalled its ambassador while Egypt’s new government, which took office after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February, said Syria was nearing “the point of no return”.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu held more than three hours of talks with Assad to seek an end to the violence, swift elections and dialogue with the opposition.
In response Assad said Syria “will not relent in pursuing terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and security of the citizens ... but is also determined to continue reforms”, Syria’s state news agency said.
Assad told a delegation of Indian, Brazilian and South African officials that Syria would complete a reform of the constitution by March next year and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said a parliamentary election would be held this year.
“Moualem reiterated that Syria will be a free, pluralistic and multi-party democracy before the end of the year,” said a statement issued by the group after their talks.
In Deir al-Zor, witnesses said on Wednesday tanks and armoured vehicles had spread across the city, and residents had reversed earlier pledges to resist any army assault by force.
“The inhabitants of Deir al-Zor have taken a collective decision not to resist, so as not to give excuses to the authorities to spread their propaganda about terrorists and armed groups,” one resident said.
“We are hearing the sound of machineguns and shells.” He said he heard that soldiers and military intelligence officers had a list of 364 activists they were hunting.
Other residents had also reported that the army shelled the Othman Ibn Affan mosque, where protests had first erupted, he said. Footage broadcast by Al Jazeera television showed the top third of the minaret crashing to the ground after being struck.
The resident also said he saw troops spraying slogans on houses such as “Assad or no one” and “The people want the army to come in”.
Authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths.
Hama and Deir al-Zor are populated mostly by majority Sunnis and the crackdowns there resonate with their co-religionists who predominate in the Middle East and govern most Arab countries.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Doug Palmer, Alister Bull and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Robert Woodward