Cairo – Syria’s military forces continued pressing to crush a three-month-old popular uprising on Thursday, shelling a string of southern and central towns even as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned President Bashar al-Assad that his legitimacy had “nearly run out.”
The relentless military mobilization and unforgiving use of force killed 96 people in recent days, leaving more than 1,000 unarmed protesters dead since the popular protests started in mid-March, human rights activists said Thursday.
As the death toll grew and Washington stepped up pressure, hundreds of opposition activists concluded a two-day gathering at a beach resort in Turkey, where they called on Mr. Assad to step down and pledged to help build democracy once he left power.
Most of the delegates were longtime exiles and expatriates who had fled the Assad government, but a few were Syrian demonstrators who slipped across the border to help build structure into an otherwise leaderless movement.
“We’re not trying to steal the credit of the revolution, we are here for unconditional support to people inside Syria,” said Adib Shishakly, one of the organizers of the conference, held in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. “This is the first seed we planted here for a bright future in Syria.”
In Washington, Mrs. Clinton’s remarks to reporters were a subtle escalation of criticism of Mr. Assad, whose ties with Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas have contributed to a history of tense relations with the United States. Mrs. Clinton stopped short of calling for him to step down, saying instead, “If he is not going to lead the reform, then he needs to get out of the way.”
She urged the international community to adopt a “united” position on the Syrian crackdown, alluding to reluctance on the part of China and Russia to see action taken by the United Nations Security Council.
Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, repeated Russia’s position against international intervention in Syria, telling Bloomberg News, “It is not in the interests of anyone to send messages to the opposition in Syria or elsewhere that if you reject all reasonable offers we will come and help you as we did in Libya.”
Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, has called the protests the work of foreign conspirators and Islamic extremists bent on destroying the country and its fragile balance of ethnic groups and religious sects, an argument that even some of his supporters say is without merit or evidence.
Throughout the crisis, Mr. Assad has sought to appear reasonable and willing to compromise, offering concessions even as the security forces continued to kill and arrest demonstrators. The pattern continued Thursday as the government announced the formation of a National Dialogue Committee, led by Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, and released at least 180 prisoners as part of a recent presidential amnesty.
At the same time, activists said security forces besieged and shelled civilian population centers and killed scores.
Lina Mansour, a lawyer working with political prisoners, said the number of prisoners released was small compared with the 11,000 detainees held in Al Arda prison. And Luey Hussein, a journalist and activist arrested in March for talking to reporters from the BBC, called the proposed dialogue “condescending” as long as the crackdown continued.
“Freedom doesn’t need a dialogue,” he said.
Syrian forces appeared to be focusing Thursday on the restive central city of Homs and the surrounding area, and the southern province of Dara’a, the birthplace of the uprising. Troops and tanks continued for a fifth day to assault a belt of towns around Homs, including Talbiseh, Deir Maaleh and Al Rastan.
Shells rained down on Al Rastan, crashing into mosques, a cemetery, the town’s main bakery and a number of homes, killing at least 23 people, including three families who died when their homes were struck, said the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, a group monitoring the crackdown.
The military also barred people from taking food and medicine into the towns, said the group, which said it had documented 70 deaths in Al Rastan and 10 in the Homs area since the military operation began last week.
Tanks prowled the streets of Homs, said a resident of the Bab Amr neighborhood who gave his name only as Mohamed because he was afraid of arrest.
He said he had spent two days unsuccessfully trying to contact a friend in Al Rastan. When they last spoke on Wednesday morning, he said, his friend said that he was “surrounded on all sides with continuous gunfire.”
“He told me the situation was so difficult nobody could leave his house,” Mohamed said.
Security forces killed 13 in the southern town of Hirak, the monitoring group said.
Soldiers went house to house arresting more than 50 young people, destroying furniture, stealing food and killing livestock, said Gasem, a 27-year-old construction worker who fled the town overnight, hiding in a wheat field for three hours, and also gave only one name. Water, electricity and telephone service in the town were cut off, he said from Damascus.
“I know by name seven of my relatives who were killed just in the last two days,” he said.
Hirak remained “completely disconnected from the outside” for a second day on Thursday, said a witness in nearby Dara’a. In the nearby town of Da’al, military operations killed three, said Wissam al Ghazali, an activist.
The unrelenting violence concerned those gathered in Turkey, but they said that they opposed any outside intervention and that they rejected any military strike against Syria.
“We strictly oppose to any kind of armed interference, especially like the kind of United Nations operations in Libya,” said Hasan Hachimi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from Canada.
Instead, there was a consensus for another kind of intervention: “If the United Nations would be in the picture, it would be with Bashar Assad standing in front of the courts in Hague for his crimes against humanity, which is my dream,” Mr. Hachimi said.