Attack kills Syrian judge, prosecutor

Posted: February 20, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Gunmen in Syria staged a guerrilla-style ambush that killed a senior state prosecutor and a judge Sunday in an attack that suggested armed factions are growing bolder and more coordinated in their uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The roadway slayings - reported in an opposition-dominated northern region by the Syrian state news agency - came a day after a deadly hit-and-run attack on a political figure in the heart of the pro-Assad city of Aleppo.

The targeted killings have not reached Assad's inner circle, but they indicate a growing shift toward violent tactics by the opposition as it draws more military defectors and seeks to tighten control over the small pieces of territory in its hands.

With fears of a civil war, neighboring Jordan is racing to finish a refugee camp near the Syrian border to handle a possible exodus of people fleeing for safety.

Meanwhile, Egypt became the latest Arab nation to publicly snub Assad by ordering the withdrawal of its ambassador in Damascus.

The Syrian government has offered some concessions, including proposing a referendum next week that could allow more political voices to challenge Assad's Baath Party. But the opposition demands nothing short of Assad's resignation. And the regime has not eased off its attacks on the opposition forces, which it describes as "terrorists" carrying out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.

In Homs, in central Syria, government forces sent in reinforcements as they shelled the rebel-held Baba Amr district, which has been under near-constant barrage for nearly two weeks, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said at least 14 people were killed Sunday across Syria, half of them by government troops.

"I'm worried that Syria is going to slide into a civil war," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC on Sunday.

The United Nations last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 people had been killed in 2011 alone. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. An opposition coalition, the Local Coordination Committees, said more than 7,300 have been killed since the uprising began more than 11 months ago.

There is no way independently to verify the numbers because Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

The latest assassinations took place on a road in the northwest province of Idlib, which has become a patchwork of areas held either by the government or mutinous soldiers who have safe-haven bases in nearby Turkey.

The state news agency SANA said gunmen opened fire on a car carrying Idlib provincial state prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and Judge Mohammed Ziadeh, who were killed instantly. The driver also was fatally wounded.

Idlib has witnessed intense clashes between troops loyal to Assad and army defectors who attack and then melt into the mountains. In June, the town of Jisr al-Shugour became the first area to fall into the hands of rebels, who were accused by the government of killing scores of people and setting government buildings on fire. Syrian troops loyal to Assad retook the area shortly afterward.

On Saturday, SANA said gunmen shot to death Jamal al-Bish, a member of the city council of the nearby northern city of Aleppo. The city has been a center of support for Assad since the uprising began.

The back-to-back slayings follow the Feb. 11 killing of a Syrian army general in the first assassination to take place in the capital, Damascus. Brig. Gen. Issa al-Khouli, a doctor and the chief of a military hospital in the capital, was shot as he left his home. Last month, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent branch in Idlib was shot to death while on his way to Damascus.

In Cairo, Egyptian state news agency MENA said Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr decided to withdraw the country's ambassador to Syria. The report gave no reason for the decision, but Arab governments have been pulling diplomatic backing for Assad in protest against his refusal to back regional peace efforts.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, said this month that it would withdraw its ambassadors and expel Syrian envoys from the oil-rich region. Tunisia also has pulled its ambassador from Damascus.

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