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Foreign minister: Syria 'will forget Europe exists'

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Syria's Assad mixes promises, threats
  • NEW: The foreign minister lashed out at Europe ahead of a vote on sanctions
  • NEW: The EU is considering extending sanctions imposed in May
  • Syria forced people to attend pro-Assad rallies, activist claims
  • The country has seen months of unrest that has left many dead or displaced

(CNN) -- Syria "will forget Europe exists on a map," the nation's foreign minister said Wednesday as the European Union considered extending sanctions against the authoritarian state.

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem also said Syria would emerge through national dialogue as an "unprecedented democratic model." He also denied that Iran or Hezbollah was playing a role in the current unrest.

The EU is set to vote Thursday on extending sanctions imposed in May by adding seven people and four business entities to the list, said an EU official, who is not authorized to comment on the proposal and wished to remain anonymous.

The originial sanctions included the freezing of assets and travel restrictions on 13 Syrian officials connected to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad lays blame for chaos in Syria
  • Bashar Assad
  • Syria
  • Middle East

In an address on state television, Moallem lashed out at those who were critical of al-Assad's vague promised of reform amid global calls for swift change in Syria.

Al-Assad has cracked down brutally on anti-government demonstrators calling for democracy in Syria. He said he was "working on getting the military back to their barracks as soon as possible" but also warned the government would hold accountable whose who "plotted" in the bloodshed.

"I only want to say to them one thing: stop interfering in Syrian affairs, don't provoke chaos, don't provoke strife," Moallem said. "The Syrian people ... can make their own future away from you.

"I categorically deny that there is any interference by Iran or the Hezbollah Party with regard to what is happening in Syria," he said. "Yes there is political support from Iran and Hezbollah to help Syria in passing this crisis, and there is support for the reforms that the president announced, but there is no military support on the ground."

Also Wednesday, a human rights campaigner from the country told CNN that Syrian workers and students were forced to attend rallies in support of al-Assad this week.

Government workers were ordered to attend the rallies, said Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

Qurabi provided CNN with a copy of what he said were leaked official government documents saying that government workers who refused to attend would have their pay docked and would be considered absent from work for the day.

CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the document. Syria has not responded to Qurabi's allegations.

Qurabi, who is from Syria but is currently in Egypt, says his organization received complaints from dozens of college students across the country that were forced to attend the rallies or face losing academic credits for the year.

Executives of pro-Assad corporations such as Rami Makhlouf's SyriaTel also required employees to attend the rallies by threatening to dock pay, Qurabi charged.

Syria's official news agency SANA reported Tuesday that "millions of Syrian citizens gathered in the public squares in support of the comprehensive reform program under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad."

State TV showed images Tuesday of thousands joining pro-regime rallies in Daraa, Aleppo and Homs. Some in the crowds chanted, "With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you, Bashar" and "God, Syria and Bashar only."

In addition to the pro-Assad demonstrations, fighting raged in Homs Tuesday, with at least two people killed and several others wounded, an activist group said.

Clashes erupted between protesters and security forces, according to the Local Coordination Committee in Syria, a network of activists that promotes and documents demonstrations across the country.

They occurred in al-Khalidiya neighborhood, and video said to be from the Homs unrest shows protesters running and throwing rocks and contains sounds of heavy gunfire. CNN cannot independently confirm the information.

Demonstrations critical of the government began in the southern city of Daraa months ago and were swiftly suppressed by security forces. Anti-government fervor caught on nationwide as more protests were met with tougher crackdowns.

After three months of protests, more than 1,100 have died and thousands more have been jailed, according to human rights activists.

Qurabi, the activist with the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said Tuesday that dozens of protesters were arrested the day before during peaceful anti-government demonstrations in the city of Aleppo.

The world's attention has been focused on the plight of Syrians displaced from their homes by violence.

At least 10,718 Syrian refugees, many of whom fled a military advance in and around the city of Jisr al-Shugur, have crossed the border into Turkey.

The U.N. refugee agency Tuesday said it participated in a government-sponsored mission to Jisr al-Shugur the day before, a trip that included diplomats, reporters and U.N. agencies.

"There was no evidence of people working in the fields. Jisr al-Shugur itself was almost deserted, with most shops shuttered and closed," the agency said, which "indicates significant displacement."

The agency said many people are "severely traumatized" by the ordeal.

"Syrian refugees spoke to our team about their fears and trauma. Many had lost family members, who they said were either killed, missing or in hiding. Our team heard accounts of murders, targeted assassinations, assaults, civilians getting killed in crossfire, torture and humiliation by the military," the agency said. "Most of these people had lost virtually all their belongings and property. In many cases their livestock were shot, fields were torched, and homes and businesses destroyed or confiscated."

CNN's Yousuf Basil and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.

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