ANTALYA, Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed 41 civilians in an effort to crush pro-democracy protests, a human rights lawyer said on Wednesday, as opposition leaders met in Turkey to plot the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Lawyer Razan Zaitouna told Reuters by telephone from Damascus the 41 dead in Rastan included a four-year-old girl killed as government forces shelled the central town on Tuesday.
Five of them were buried in Rastan on Wednesday, she said.
Syrian forces also killed nine civilians on Tuesday in the town of Hirak, rights campaigner Ammar Qurabi said on Wednesday.
The nine, among them three doctors, one dentist and an 11-year-old girl, were killed by snipers and during the storming of houses in Hirak, where tanks had deployed this week, Qurabi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights Organization, told Reuters.
Rights groups say 1,000 civilians have been killed as Assad seeks to crush a revolt which has turned into the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule. The severity of the crackdown has provoked international condemnation and sanctions.
“The revolution inside Syria has declared ‘the people want the overthrow of the regime’. We echo it. The price of the blood being shed can only be freedom,” Abdelrazzaq Eid, a senior figure in the Damascus Declaration umbrella opposition group, told a conference in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya.
The gathering is the first official meeting of activists and opposition figures in exile since protests erupted 10 weeks ago in Deraa, a poor, agricultural city in southern Syria.
“The dictatorship has presented nothing to show a modicum of good intentions. It has lost any legitimacy by firing at and killing its own people,” Eid said, to the applause of delegates.
Syrian authorities blame armed groups, backed by Islamists and foreign agitators, for the unrest and say more than 120 police and soldiers have been killed.
The meeting in Turkey brought together a broad spectrum of opposition figures driven abroad over the last 30 years, from Islamists crushed in the 1980s, to fleeing Christians.
A regional Middle East player, Assad has sought since succeeding his father in 2000 to maintain Syria as an ally of Iran and supporter of militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah while seeking better ties with the West and peace with Israel.
But Assad’s handling of the protests has triggered U.S. and EU sanctions on members of the ruling hierarchy, including himself, after four years of detente with the West. Syria’s backer Turkey has also begun to criticize Assad.
Delegates in Turkey said an ultra-loyalist army controlled by Assad’s brother Maher, and a security apparatus which has suppressed dissent for decades, were preventing Damascus and Syria’s biggest city Aleppo from joining the demonstrations.
But they said international pressure and a series of gruesome killings have turned Syrian public opinion against the 45-year-old leader, pointing to a slow but steady expansion of demonstrations, despite an intensified military crackdown.
“I am afraid there will be more sacrifices before Assad goes, but this is the nature of revolutions,” said Naim al-Salamat, a researcher who lives in Ireland.
Thirteen-year-old Hamza al-Khatib has become a potent symbol to protesters after video of his bloodied corpse was posted on the Internet. Activists say he was tortured and killed by security forces. Syrian authorities deny he was tortured and say he was killed when armed gangs shot at government forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “very concerned” about Khatib’s case.
“I think what that symbolizes for many Syrians is the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people,” Clinton told a news conference.
“I can only hope that this child did not die in vain.”
Assad has issued decrees aimed at appeasing public grievances. Opposition leaders say they would not change the nature of a repressive political system in which arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture of political detainees are common.
State news agency SANA said on Wednesday Assad ordered the formation of a committee tasked with setting the framework for a national dialogue.
On Tuesday he announced an amnesty for political prisoners, but rights campaigners said the decree had numerous exceptions, specifying reduced sentences for many cases rather than release.
France said the amnesty had come too late.
“The Syrian authorities’ change of direction will have to be much clearer and more ambitious than a simple amnesty,” France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France Culture radio.
Editing by Jon Hemming and Michael Roddy