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Assad Orders Referendum On New Syrian Constitution


Oil Pipeline On Fire In Homs, Syria
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Syria's state-run news agency says President Bashar al-Assad has ordered a referendum on a new constitution to be held on February 26.

The draft document -- which Syrian state television characterizes as offering an opportunity for "people to govern people" -- reportedly omits a clause in the current constitution that describes the ruling Baath Party as the "leader of the nation and society."

Opposition groups have demanded changes to the constitution but now say they will not accept anything less than Assad's departure from power.

The move comes as a deadly crackdown against protesters calling for Assad's departure from power entered its 11th month.

A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council rejected the move.

In Washington, the White House dismissed Assad's proposal as "laughable," while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was "a step forward."

Meanwhile, activists said Syrian forces pursued military operations in the flashpoint cities of Homs and Hama.

Activists say government forces fired on residential neighborhoods in Hama from armored vehicles and mobile antiaircraft guns. The report could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, government troops are reported to have kept up their assault on Homs, now in its 13th day. At least 20 people were reported killed in Homs on February 14.

Reports say an explosion hit an oil pipeline in Homs province. It was not immediately clear what caused the blast, which sent a huge plume of smoke into the sky over the area.

The pipeline has been hit several times during the 11-month uprising against Assad.

In Paris, France said it had created a 1 million-euro ($1.3 million) emergency fund for aid agencies looking to help the Syrian people and would propose a similar one at meeting on Syria next week in Tunisia.

UN Resolution

At the UN, Egypt has circulated a resolution on Syria at the General Assembly.

The resolution strongly condemns Assad's regime for human rights violations and backs an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down.

The wording is similar to a Security Council resolution vetoed by Russia and China on February 4. General Assembly resolutions, however, can't be vetoed, but they are nonbinding as well.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged the General Assembly to call on the Syrian government "to put an end to all human rights violations, and to demand accountability for the crimes committed."

Reports say a vote on the General Assembly resolution could come as soon as February 16. If approved, the resolution would be the second adopted by the General Assembly on Syria in two months.

The diplomatic activity at the UN comes a day after UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned the Security Council's failure to take action had empowered Assad's government to intensify its crackdown.

Damascus has rejected charges by Pillay that crimes against humanity may have been committed since the crackdown was launched last year in March.

In a statement, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the UN human rights commission was "turning into a tool in the hands of some countries targeting Syria, and ignoring the terrorist crimes committed by the armed groups."

Compiled from agency reports

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