Royal Dutch Shell said on Friday it would cease operations in Syria Syria to heed new European Union sanctions against Damascus, deepening the international isolation of President Bashar al-Assad imposed over his violent crackdown on popular unrest.
In continuing bloodshed, Syrian army defectors killed eight Air Force intelligence personnel in an attack on their base in the north of the country, according to an opposition group.
Thursday's incident suggested that armed deserters are turning increasingly from defending civilian protesters against violent repression by Assad's security forces to an offensive of ambushes and roadside bombs, raising the spectre of civil war.
On Friday, Syrian troops fired at random into an anti-Assad demonstration after Muslim prayers in the village of Kfar Laha northwest of the city of Homs, killing one man and wounding 10 people, opposition activists said.
Western and Arab countries have been intensifying punitive sanctions to press Assad to carry out pledges to halt bloodshed by withdrawing forces from restive cities, admitting Arab League observers and starting transition talks with the opposition.
Royal Dutch Shell said it would be shutting down in Syria to comply with EU sanctions slapped on Syria's economically vital oil and financial sectors the day before.
A Shell spokesman said: "Our main priority is the safety of our employees ... We hope the situation improves quickly for all Syrians."
The EU on Friday extended sanctions to three Syrian oil concerns, including the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation (GPC) and Syria Trading Oil (Sytrol), to crank up the financial pressure on the Assad government.
The three oil concerns were among 11 entities and 12 Syrian leadership figures added to an EU blacklist now aimed in part at bringing the Syrian ventures of oil giants to a halt. Royal Dutch Shell was the first to bow out. [ID: nL5E7K50S9]
Syrian oil comprises under 1 percent of daily world output but accounts for a big chunk of Syrian government earnings.
The expanded EU sanctions list encompasses media companies and firms the EU says supply sensitive equipment to a research centre that supports Assad's suppression of dissent. The United States and the Arab League have also imposed an array of economic sanctions and banned travel by some Syrian VIPs.
CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL ACTION
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for international action to protect Syria's civilian population from "continual ruthless repression that, if not stopped now, can drive the country into a full-fledged civil war".
More than 4,000 people have been killed, including 307 children, in the military crackdown on unrest since March and more than 14,000 people are believed to be held in detention, she told an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
"In light of the manifest failure of the Syrian authorities to protect their citizens, the international community needs to take urgent and effective measures to protect the Syrian people," Pillay said in Geneva. "All acts of murder, torture and other forms of violence must be immediately stopped.
Pillay did not spell out what measures world powers should take. Russian and Chinese envoys, whose governments have blocked tougher U.N. sanctions on Syria, brushed aside her appeal.
"We would like to warn against illegal interference by outside forces even under the pretext of protecting human rights. "This will have serious and unforeseen consequences," Russia's Valery Loshchinin told the Council session.
"We hear that the conflict in Syria continues to be fuelled by outside forces, armed and terrorist groups being organised and supplied with weapons and money from abroad," he said, echoing Assad's portrayal of his opponents.
Western leaders have no appetite for military intervention in Syria, like the NATO air strikes that helped rebels topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, because Damascus bestrides a Middle East conflict zone including Israel, Iran and Lebanon.
Russia traditionally uses what clout it retains in the Middle East as a lever in strategic manoeuvring with Europe and the United States. Syria is also one of Russia's major arms clients, and both Russia and China have oil stakes with Assad, whose family has held authoritarian power in Syria for 41 years.
ATTACK ON INTELLIGENCE BASE
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on Air Force intelligence occurred on Thursday in Idlib province, between the towns of Jisr al-Shughour and the Mediterranean port of Latakia.
"A clash ensued for three hours which led to the death of at least eight members of the Air Force Intelligence," it said.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said security forces "on Thursday killed 5 armed men and arrested 35 others during a clash with armed terrorist members in the Hama countryside".
It said dozens of Kalashnikov assault rifles, shotguns, grenades and explosives were seized.
The anti-Assad Syrian Free Army has formed a military council of nine defecting officers. They issued a declaration pledging to "bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression ... and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls".
The main civilian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, held a first meeting with Free Army leaders in Istanbul this week. A Council spokeswoman said the Council only supports a peaceful uprising and the Free Army is not its armed wing.
Syrian armed forces defectors began organising three months ago and now number around 10,000, say opposition sources.
They cite increased operations in the last ten days by defectors and insurgents in the central regions Hama and Homs, Idlib on the border with Turkey, and the southern province of Deraa where armoured convoys have been attacked.
U.S. PRAISES TURKEY'S ROLE
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, on a visit to Ankara, praised Turkey for being "a real leader" on the Syrian crisis. "We also welcome the government's giving space in Turkey to the political opposition," he told Hurriyet newspaper.
SANA said Syria had suspended a free trade zone pact with Turkey in retaliation for Ankara's actions. Turkey, formerly a staunch ally of Assad, has also suspended financial credit dealings with Syria and frozen Syrian government assets, joining the Arab and Western campaign to push Assad into concessions. (Additional reporting by Alister Bull in Iraq, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich)