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Obama tells Syria's Assad to quit; condemns him for 'slaughtering his own people'

President Obama called on Syria's President Bashar Assad to quit office Thursday, as a team of U.N. investigators listed the Damascus regime's alleged atrocities in a new report.
Image: A Syrian man, right, reacts next to his brother who was seriously wounded during violence between security forces and armed groups
A Syrian man, right, reacts next to his brother who was seriously wounded during violence between security forces and armed groups in Latakia, northwest of Damascus, Syria, on Sunday, March 27.Hussein Malla / AP
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

President Obama called on Syria's President Bashar Assad to quit office Thursday, as a team of United Nations human rights investigators listed the Damascus regime's alleged atrocities and said it may have committed crimes against humanity.

In a written statement, Obama outlined fresh U.S. sanctions on Assad's regime and said the United States had been "inspired by the Syrian peoples' pursuit of a peaceful transition to democracy" as they "braved ferocious brutality at the hands of their government."

"They have spoken with their peaceful marches, their silent shaming of the Syrian regime, and their courageous persistence in the face of brutality — day after day, week after week," he said.

"For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside," Obama said.

While the United States has previously called for Assad to embark on democratic reforms or to get out of the way, Obama's statement marks the first explicit call for him to go.

Moments later, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Canada, as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, also issued calls for Assad to quit.

Britain, France, Portugal and Germany said later Thursday they would begin drafting a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria.

"We believe that the time has come for the council to take further action," Britain's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Philip Parham told reporters after a closed-door council meeting on Syria. The German, French and Portuguese envoys echoed his remarks.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo said that Washington also supported "further measures" against Syria by the 15-nation Security Council.

U.N. investigators, in a 22-page report published Thursday, said Syrian government forces may be guilty of crimes against humanity by conducting summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children in their crackdown on opposition protesters.

Syrian assets frozen
In his statement, Obama spoke of "disgraceful attacks" on civilians and the arrest and torture of opposition figures, saying Assad's government had now been condemned worldwide and could now "look only to Iran for support for its brutal and unjust crackdown."

The statement said the United States could not and would not impose democracy on Syria. However, Obama said his administration would put pressure on Assad with "unprecedented sanctions" on his regime.

Obama said he had signed an executive order that would:

  • require all Syrian government assets to be immediately frozen;
  • ban imports of Syrian-origin petroleum or petroleum products;
  • prohibit U.S. persons from having any dealings in or related to Syria's petroleum or petroleum products;
  • and prohibit U.S. persons from operating or investing in Syria.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called on countries to stop buying Syrian oil and gas — Europe's main purchasers include France, Germany and the Netherlands — and to get China and India to curb their investments in Syria.

"For months the world has borne witness to the Assad regime's contempt for its own people," Clinton said in a brief State Department appearance on Thursday. "The transition to democracy in Syria has begun and its time for Assad to get out of the way."

A key factor that prompted Obama to make the announcement was last week's decision by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to finally break with Assad, NBC News reported. U.S. policy against the Syrian regime had been frustrated by the lack of help on the issue from the Arab League.

Obama and Clinton have been relying heavily on Turkey to pressure Assad, who is still getting significant help from Iran, NBC said.

U.N.: 'Systematic attacks against the civilian population'
The U.N. report, which listed a number of alleged atrocities, recommended that the U.N. Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of alleged atrocities, a move that is likely to be discussed by the council at a closed-door session in New York later Thursday.

Syrian Ibrahim Jamal al-Jahamani, who was recently released from Syrian jail where he said he saw a 15-year-old boy tortured to death, reacts during an interview with the Associated Press near the Syrian-Jordanian border Thursday, July 7, 2011. He says he saw the boy _ Tamer Mohammed al-Sharei _ beaten to death by his Syrian interrogators. Al-Sharei disappeared in the southern Syrian flashpoint town of Daraa on April 29. Al-Jahamani said he saw the boy at a compound run by Syria's powerful Air Force Intelligence and after his release witnessed the videos of the dead teenager that shocked many people in the Arab world. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)Raad Adayleh / AP

"The mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity," the U.N. investigators said in the report.

Among the specific atrocities mentioned in the report are:

  • the alleged execution of 26 blindfolded men at a football stadium in the southern city of Daraa on May 1;
  • indiscriminate firing of live ammunition at peaceful demonstrators using snipers and helicopters, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people including women and children;
  • and the killing of injured protesters in hospitals — including by locking people in morgue refrigerators alive.

"Children have not only been targeted by security forces, but they have been repeatedly subject to the same human rights and criminal violations as adults, including torture," the report found.

13-year-old boy's body mutilated
It cited the case of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib from the southern village of Jiza, whose mutilated body, with his penis severed, was delivered to his family weeks after he disappeared April 29.

The U.N. team, led by Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang, was denied access to Syria itself, but conducted interviews March 15 to July 15 with witnesses in the region, including protesters and former members of the security forces who had deserted and fled the country.

The investigators also examined video evidence and photographs of alleged abuses, and invited comment from the Syrian government on the allegations.

Syrian children carry pictures of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib and hold candles during a protest in front of the United Nations building in Beirut June 1, 2011. The Syrian boy, who activists say was tortured and killed by security forces, has emerged as a powerful symbol in protests against the rule of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad which have been met with a bloody crackdown. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi (LEBANON - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)Jamal Saidi / X00237

They concluded that at least 1,900 people had been killed in the unrest by mid-July, a figure the Syrian government confirmed but said included at least 260 members of the security forces.

The Syrian government told the U.N. team that it had instituted several political reforms in response to protesters' demands and set up investigations into alleged abuses.

But Assad's government claimed media organizations had distorted facts about events in Syria, and accused the U.N. team of bias for referring to the Alawite sect — of which Assad is a member — as a "repressive minority."

50 alleged perpetrators
The authors of the report said they have compiled a confidential list of 50 alleged perpetrators at "various levels" of Assad's government who could face prosecution before the International Criminal Court.

Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statutes, so the ICC does not have automatic power to prosecute alleged abuses.

But the U.N. Security Council can also refer countries to the Hague, Netherlands-based tribunal.

Syria's Assad told the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a telephone call Wednesday that military operations in his country have ended.

But activists said Thursday that security forces shot dead 18 people nationwide and intense shooting had erupted in the flashpoint city of Latakia.