France Says Syrian Regime Committing Massacres

BEIRUT -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Syrian leader Bashar Assad of "barbarous repression" Tuesday and demanded that he step down, saying the regime is massacring its own people.

Sarkozy said Syrians should be allowed to determine their own future.

"The massacres being committed by the Syrian regime rightly arouse disgust and revolt in the Arab world, in France, in Europe and everywhere in the world," Sarkozy said during a New Year's address at a Navy air base in Lanveoc-Poulmic, France.

"The Syrian president must leave power," he told members of the French military.

The U.N.'s last estimate, announced several weeks ago, estimated that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the government's military crackdown on the revolt that erupted in mid-March, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world. But since that report, activists say hundreds more have been killed.

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The violence has drawn broad international condemnation and sanctions, but Assad remains defiant. The Arab League sent in about 100 observers a week ago to verify Syria's compliance with the organization's plan that requires the regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners. Syria agreed to the plan, intended to halt the crackdown completely, on Dec. 19.

The Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, put the death toll at more than 390 people since Dec. 21.

Activists reported more bloodshed Tuesday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that as dozens of soldiers were defecting in the southern village of Jassem, they came under fire from security forces in a clash that killed at least 18 of the government troops. The Observatory said security forces later launched raids in the area, detaining more than 100 people in and around the village.

The group also said security forces shot dead three people in the restive city of Homs and three in the central province of Hama. The LCC had a higher toll, saying security forces killed four people in Homs, one in the Damascus suburb of Kfar Batna and four in the central province of Hama.

The Arab League's chief acknowledged Monday that killings have continued even with the monitors working on the ground.

The League called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss whether to withdraw the monitors because security forces are still killing people, an Arab official said. The meeting will be in Cairo, where the Arab League is based.

Syrian opposition groups have been deeply critical of the Arab League mission, saying it is simply giving Assad cover for his crackdown. The LCC says the observer mission is witnessing mainly regime-staged events, and they move about the country only with the full knowledge of the government.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the regime must not be allowed to interfere with the observers on the ground.

"The conditions in which this observer mission is taking place need to be clarified," he told French television I-Tele. "Does it really have completely free access to information? We await the report that it will submit in the coming days to see more clearly."

On Monday, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby acknowledged ongoing bloodshed but insisted the observer mission has yielded important concessions from the Damascus regime, such as the withdrawal of heavy weapons from cities.

"Yes, there is still shooting and yes there are still snipers," he said. "Yes, killings continue. The objective is for us to wake up in the morning and hear that no one is killed. The mission's philosophy is to protect civilians, so if one is killed, then our mission is incomplete."

Syria has banned most foreign journalists from the country and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm claims from either side.

The Arab League's deputy secretary-general, Ahmed bin Heli, said the meeting on Saturday will look into the first report by the head of the monitoring mission.

Another official told The Associated Press that the ministerial meeting will discuss whether to pull out the monitors because of the ongoing violence. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Saturday meeting will not make a final decision, but will send its recommendations to another, high-level ministerial meeting. No date was set for that meeting.

While most of the violence reported early in the uprising involved Syrian forces firing on unarmed protesters, there are now more frequent armed clashes between military defectors and security forces. The increasing militarization of the conflict has raised fears the country is sliding toward civil war.

Also Tuesday, an explosion struck a gas pipeline in central Syria in an attack the government blamed on terrorists, the state-run news agency said. There were no casualties. The blast happened near the town Rastan in the restive Homs province, SANA reported. The pipeline feeds two power stations.

There have been several pipeline attacks since the Syrian uprising began in mid-March, but it is not clear who is behind them at a time when violence across the country spirals out of control, unearthing long-standing grievances and resentments.

The government blames saboteurs and terrorists for the blasts.

But the opposition accuses the regime of playing on fears of religious extremism and terrorism to rally support behind Assad, who has portrayed himself as the only force that can stabilize the country.