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Syria promises free elections as soldiers besiege rebel city
BEIRUT -- The Syrian military tightened its siege on the city of Hama on Saturday in its drive to crush the main center of the anti-regime uprising in the country, even as the foreign minister promised that free parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year in a gesture of reform.
Like previous reform promises, the new announcement is unlikely to have much resonance with Syria's opposition, which says it has lost all confidence in President Bashar Assad's overtures.
The four-year term of the current parliament expired earlier this year, and Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem pledged to press ahead with reforms and said the new parliament "will represent the aspirations of the Syrian people."
"The ballot box will be the determining factor and it will be up to the elected parliament to review adopted draft bills to decide on them," he said during a meeting he held with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.
Nearby nations angry
But Syria was coming under increasing international criticism over the bloody siege of Hama, launched last Sunday after residents calling for Assad's ouster took over the city of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces. Activists said Saturday that security forces killed 24 people around the country a day earlier.
Gulf Arab countries broke their silence on the bloodshed, calling Saturday for an immediate end to the violence and for the implementation of "serious" reforms in Syria. In a statement posted on its website, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for "the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force."
In Damascus and other cities, mourners held funerals Saturday for several of those killed on Friday. Amateur videos posted online by activists showed crowds marching in the funeral procession of a teenager who was killed in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. Some of the mourners shouted "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," and "there is no God but God and Assad is his enemy."
Syria's state-run SANA news agency said funerals were also held for six soldiers and members of the security forces who were gunned down by "terrorist groups" and gunmen in Homs, Hama and the northern province of Idlib.
Late Saturday, security agents raided a house in a Damascus suburb where prominent opposition figure Walid al-Bunni had been hiding. They arrested al-Bunni and his two sons, Iyad and Moayad, according to several rights groups and activists.
The London-based Observatory for Human Rights in Syria also said security forces arrested four activist brothers from the Khattab family after raiding their Damascus home.
In Haman, the government has ramped up its campaign, and tanks shelled the city Friday night, causing several casualties, one resident said. He said there were reports that a hospital was hit in the bombardment.