BEIRUT — Two prominent Syrian dissidents said Wednesday they have quit the main opposition group that emerged from the year-old uprising against the regime in Damascus, predicting more would soon abandon what one of the men described as an “autocratic” organization.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Syria’s foreign ministry said Damascus had given positive responses to suggestions raised by UN special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan for ending the country’s internal violence. Opposition sources said 44 people had been killed Wednesday in the ongoing fighting.
The resignations from the Syrian National Council dealt another blow to the opposition, which has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting since the popular revolt against authoritarian President Bashar Assad started a year ago with protests calling for political reform.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said Wednesday that Syrian security forces routinely torture people detained during the uprising. In a report, the London-based group said detainees are beaten with sticks, cords and rifle butts and sometimes suspended inside tires for further beatings. Others are sexually assaulted or killed.
One of the dissidents who resigned, Kamal al-Labwani, accused the leadership of the Syrian National Council of controlling the body’s work while sidelining most of its 270 members.
“There is no council, it’s an illusion,” said al-Labwani, who worked for years against the Assad family regime before being jailed in 2005. He joined the council soon after being released in November.
He accused council chief Burhan Ghalioun and a few others of running the organization autocratically, even comparing it to Assad’s ruling Baath party.
“They are trying to build an autocratic rule inside the council,” he said. “There is no group work. Everyone is working by himself and the whole council has not met once.”
He said that another council member, Catherine al-Talli, has also quit and said he expected many more to quit soon to pressure the council leadership. Al-Labwani called for an international conference in Turkey to give the council a new charter and make it more democratic.
Another dissident, 80 year-old lawyer Haitham al-Maleh, said he too had quit the council, but did not say why. He has accused the group in the past of being out of touch and not consulting those long opposed to the regime.
Prominent council members have publicly disagreed on fundamental issues such as whether the anti-Assad struggle should be peaceful or resort to arms. Activists inside Syria often accuse the body, mostly composed of Syrian exiles in Europe and elsewhere, of being out of touch with the struggle on the ground.
For the last year, security forces have cracked down hard on all signs of dissent, deploying snipers, troops and pro-government thugs to disperse protests. As the protest have spread and some in the opposition have taken up arms to protect themselves and attack government troops, the uprising has evolved into one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring.
The UN said in late February that more than 7,500 had been killed, most of them peaceful demonstrators. Activists say hundreds more have been killed since.
Assad has faced mounting international criticism for the crackdown, and Western and Arab powers are struggling to find a way to stop the bloodshed while so far rejecting military intervention.
Joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan ended his first visit to Syria Sunday without obtaining a cease-fire to make way for a dialogue among all parties about a political solution to the conflict.
Russia and China have stymied efforts to censure Syria in the UN Security Council, fearing that a resolution calling for Assad to leave power could open the door to an international bombing campaign, as happened in Libya last year.
Russia’s foreign minister said Wednesday that Moscow is providing Syria with weapons to fend off external threats but has no intention to use military force to protect Assad. Sergey Lavrov also said Russia isn’t supplying arms that could be used against protesters.
Like Assad, Russia has blamed the uprising on foreign actors.
In a meeting with lawmakers, Lavrov said Moscow has been urging the Syrian government to take “steps that would calm the situation,” adding that others should use their ties to the opposition to end violence.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy struck out at Assad on Wednesday, saying he is “behaving like a murderer” and should be sent to the International Criminal Court. He also called for the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow aid to enter and refugees to leave the country.
“We must obtain humanitarian corridors, and for that we must unblock the Russian veto and Chinese veto” at the UN Security Council, Sarkozy told Europe-1 radio.
Torture appears to be part of a strategy to punish and intimidate dissidents, Amnesty said in its report Wednesday. It called on the International Criminal Court in the Hague to investigate charges of crimes against humanity against Syrian officials.
“Torture and other ill-treatment in Syria form part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organized manner and as part of state policy and therefore amount to crimes against humanity,” it said.
The report is based on interviews in mid-February with dozens of Syrians who had fled to neighboring Jordan. Twenty-five said they had been tortured or ill-treated.
The group said it has documented 276 cases of death in detention since the uprising’s start. But given the large number of people who have been detained, it says the number of those killed is likely much higher.
The report also accuses armed opposition groups of kidnapping and killing people believed to be associated with the regime. Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment. The government blames the uprising on armed extremists acting out a foreign conspiracy.
Activist groups said government forces attacked opposition areas around the country on Wednesday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported deadly clashes between government forces and rebels in the northern Idlib province one day after the government seized what had been a rebel stronghold.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 11 people had been killed nationwide Wednesday, 7 in Idlib and 3 in the central city of Homs, where government forces have been shelling civilian neighborhoods and clashing with rebel holdouts since seizing the neighborhood of Baba Amr on March 1.
Government forces were also shelling at shooting at homes in the southern town of Daraa Wednesday, said a spokesman for the armed opposition Free Syrian Army in Jordan, Munceef al-Zaeem.
He said there were 130 tanks in the area, and reports of dead and wounded, but that numbers could not be confirmed because of the violence.
“We are not able to leave our houses. People are panicking because of the shooting,” Daraa resident Abu Ahmed told The AP by phone. “We are fearful because the shells can explode and kill everybody present in our homes.”
The Syrian government has barred most media from operating in the country during the uprising, and some foreign journalists have undertaken dangerous trips to sneak in.
On Wednesday, a Turkish newspaper says it has lost contact with one of its reporters and a freelance cameraman working in northern Syria.
Ali Adakoglu, managing editor of the Istanbul-based Milat newspaper, said writer Adem Ozkose was last heard from on Saturday when he called from an area near the northern town of Idlib, which the Syrian army captured Tuesday.
Adakoglu said Wednesday that the paper is seeking help from Turkey’s foreign ministry to locate the two.