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UN team in Syria, Assad to address the nation

world Updated: Aug 21, 2011 09:16 IST

A UN humanitarian team has arrived in Syria to assess crisis needs as President Bashar al-Assad prepared to speak to the nation on Sunday, amid global pressure to end a brutal crackdown on protesters.

"Most of the team is in place in Syria now," a UN humanitarian department spokeswoman, Amanda Pitt, said on late Saturday. It was not known when the experts would start their work in areas of concern across the country.

The team is led by the head of the Geneva bureau of the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, Rashid Khalikov, who is now in Damascus, the official said.

Assad's television appearance on Sunday will be his first since June 20, and only his fourth since pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in March, leading to a crackdown that has prompted calls from the West for him to step down.

He will give an interview "about the situation in Syria, the continuing process of reforms, the repercussions of American and Western political and economic pressures and a vision of the future for Syria in the current regional and international context," state news agency Sana said.

On Saturday, tanks rumbled into the central city of Homs, one day after 34 anti-regime protesters were killed, activists said, adding a sense of urgency to the UN team's mission.

Two more people were killed and several others wounded in Rastan, a town between Homs and the flashpoint city of Hama, when security forces opened fire to disperse a demonstration, an activist said.

The Britain-based Syrian observatory for human rights earlier put the death toll from Friday's crackdown on anti-regime protests at 34, with most of the victims in the Homs area.

One person was also wounded in the al-Herak district of southern Daraa province where relatives and parents staged a protest outside a hospital demanding the bodies of their loved ones, the observatory said.

Security forces carried out arrests in the city of Latakia on Saturday, the observatory said, adding that many of those picked up were minors.

And human rights activist Malak Mahmud Sayed was arrested in Aleppo in the north when she was applying for a passport and taken to military security, several rights groups said.

Meanwhile, opponents of Assad opened two days of talks in Istanbul to launch a "national council" to coordinate the fight against his regime, organisers said.

Friday's anti-government rallies put to the test assurances given by Assad to UN chief Ban Ki-moon that his security forces had ended operations against civilians.

The observatory reported that 20,000 people had marched on Friday in Al-Khalidiyeh alone on a day of protest in several parts of the country.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay told the security council there was "reliable corroborative evidence" that Syrian forces are deliberately shooting anti-regime demonstrators.

Pillay also said in an interview with France 24 television that her agency had drawn up a list of 50 Syrians in senior positions that she said were responsible for violent repression.

Another UN official, undersecretary general B Lynn Pascoe, told the council that the death toll from the Syrian crackdown has now passed the 2,000 mark.

Meanwhile, human rights Watch urged the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to take action against member state Syria, saying it had violated its charter "by systematically and brutally suppressing peaceful civilian protests."

In a letter to OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, HRW asked the 57-nation body to protest Syria's actions and send a delegation there to probe possible human rights violations.

"The OIC should issue a clear statement that security forces conducting policing may use lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect life, and that killing peaceful protesters is a serious violation of the OIC charter," HRW said.

"Syria, a member of the OIC since 1970, has for four months now made a mockery of its international obligations with unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, and sieges on whole cities, towns, and villages," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Frustrated that international calls for a halt to the bloodletting were being snubbed by Damascus, US President Barack Obama called on Thursday for Assad to quit.

That call was quickly echoed by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, with Spain following suit on Friday.

But Russia and Turkey dismissed the calls for Assad's ouster.