Syria troops bomb towns, EU grounds first lady
Syrian forces bombed towns and clashed with rebels in several regions Friday as activists said thousands staged anti-regime protests and the European Union slapped sanctions on the country's First Lady.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council ordered an extension of a probe into violations in Syria, and asked investigators to map out abuses since a deadly crackdown on protests in the country erupted in March 2011.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was to travel this weekend to Moscow and Beijing, which have blocked Security Council action against Syria over the crackdown, but he had no immediate plans to return to Damascus.
Adding to pressure on the regime, the EU on Friday agreed to sanction President Bashar al-Assad's British-born wife Asma, along with his mother, sister and sister-in-law.
Diplomats in Brussels said European Union foreign ministers had agreed an assets freeze and travel ban on "Assad's wife, mother, sister and sister-in-law," and eight other members of his entourage.
In Syria, thousands of people took part in "Damascus, here we come" demonstrations, opposition activists and monitors said.
In the capital itself, five people were wounded in Kfar Sousa district as security forces opened fire to disperse protesters, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory.
In Maaret al-Numan and other towns of Idlib province on the border with Turkey, demonstrators gathered after Muslim weekly prayers in mosques, it said.
Security forces opened fire at demonstrators in Hama province of central Syria where army deserters killed a soldier, the monitoring group said, without giving an immediate toll for the protesters.
In videos posted online by activists, protests were also seen in the southern province of Daraa, birthplace of the year-long revolt in Syria that monitors say has cost more than 9,100 lives.
Fighting on Friday was concentrated mostly in the north, near the border with Turkey.
"Troops are bombing and helicopters flying overhead. Fighting has been going on since midday (Thursday) between regime forces and (army) deserters in Aazaz," opposition activist Mohammed Halabi in Aleppo province told AFP by telephone.
The Observatory said at least three soldiers and a rebel were killed in the confrontation.
In the city of Homs, also north of Damascus, at least 24 mortar rounds hit the districts of Bab Dreib, Safsafa et Warsheh, according to the Observatory.
Opposition activists said hundreds of people took part in night-time protests in areas of the capital.
"Bomb us instead of Daraa, Homs and Hama," cities where hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed in the crackdown on dissent, the demonstrators chanted in Rukneddin neighbourhood, according to activists.
The reports could not be confirmed because of restrictions on the movements of foreign media.
In diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed, the Security Council on Wednesday adopted a statement urging Assad and his foes to implement "fully and immediately" Annan's peace plan.
The initiative calls for Assad to pull troops and heavy weapons out of protest hubs, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, access to all areas affected by the fighting and a UN-supervised halt to all clashes.
Annan's spokesman said a team of technical experts had returned to Geneva after "three days of intensive talks with Syrian authorities on urgent steps to implement" the plan.
"Mr Annan and his team are currently studying the Syrian responses carefully, and negotiations with Damascus continue," said the spokesman.
After intense negotiations between major UN powers, Russia and China signed up to the Western-drafted Security Council statement which also calls on Assad to work toward a democratic transition.
On Friday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned against any attempt to circumvent UN authority on the crisis.
"There's a need to eliminate any loopholes allowing (nations) to act in circumvention of the authority of the Security Council and use force without its approval," Medvedev told a European security conference in Moscow.
Russia, he said, had heard too many "ultimatum-like statements containing threats of armed outside interference."
The Security Council, meanwhile, still awaited a formal Syrian response on Wednesday's statement. But government daily Tishrin welcomed the world body's unified stand.
Riyadh, Doha, Ankara "and other capitals which are enemies of Syria, and which wanted a military intervention... suffered a defeat on the international stage," it said.
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, dismissed the UN statement as offering "the regime the opportunity to push ahead with its repression in order to crush the revolt by the Syrian people."
European states and Washington want to press for a full, binding Security Council resolution.