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Turkish PM Erdoğan takes tougher line on Syria's al-Assad

ISTANBUL - Daily News with wires | 5/12/2011 12:00:00 AM |

Turkish PM Erdoğan has toughened his line on the Syrian leader, saying he cannot deny 'indispensable requests for peace and democracy.'

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has toughened his line on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying he cannot deny his people’s “indispensable requests for peace and democracy” as unrest continues around the neighboring country.

Al-Assad should take immediate democratic steps as the momentum toward democracy in the Middle East is “irreversible,” Erdoğan, who maintains close ties with the Syria leader, said in an interview in Ankara with journalist Charlie Rose from the U.S. public-broadcasting channel PBS.

Turkey views the situation in Syria as almost “like a domestic affair” because of the 800-kilometer border between the two countries and their close relations, the prime minister said, calling al-Assad “a good friend of mine,” Bloomberg reported.

The two leaders have had “long conversations” about changing the election system, permitting the formation of political parties and releasing political prisoners in Syria, Erdoğan told PBS.

In the Syrian city of Banias, protesters held up pictures of Erdoğan to salute him for his stand against what they perceive as al-Assad’s iron-fisted policy toward opposition, Reuters reported. Erdoğan maintains close trade and diplomatic ties with Assad but has disputed the official Damascus account of the violence.

Syrian officials have blamed most of the violence on “armed terrorist groups,” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators, and say about 100 soldiers and police have been killed.

The unrest spread this week to Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, where Syrian security forces have broken up a demonstration by thousands of students, British broadcaster BBC reported on its website Thursday citing accounts of witnesses and activists.

The dormitory protest was thought to be the city’s biggest so far. The students demanded an end to the military siege on other cities, including Homs, Daraa and Banias, the main flashpoints of dissent against al-Assad’s government.

The United States on Wednesday called the crackdown on anti-regime protests “barbaric,” the Associated Press reported.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney condemned the violence. “The Syrian government continues to follow the lead of its Iranian ally in resorting to brute force and flagrant violations of human rights and suppressing peaceful protests, and history is not on the side of this kind of action,” he said.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the Syrian attacks “barbaric,” adding, “We don’t throw the word ‘barbaric’ around here very often.”

Syrian security forces continue to crush dissent town-by-town and round up opposition leaders in an unrelenting crackdown, activists have said.

Analysts said the Obama administration is still reluctant to call for an end to al-Assad’s increasingly repressive regime for fear that a revolution in Syria could bring chaos to a key part of the Middle East with significant repercussions for Lebanon, Iran and beyond, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

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