Syrian President Bashar Assad told the United Nations chief that military operations in his country have ended, even as activists said today that security forces shot dead 18 people nationwide and intense shooting erupted in the flashpoint city of Latakia. In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Assad demanding the immediate end of all military operations and mass arrests. In response, Assad said that military and police operations had stopped, according to a UN statement. But activists say security forces killed nine people last night in the central city of Homs, where there was reportedly intense shooting until sunrise today, and nine people elsewhere in Syria yesterday. One activist notes that while most of Syria is quiet today, there is still shooting in one Latakia neighborhood.
In Washington, US officials said the Obama administration is ready to make an explicit call for Assad to leave power. The timing is still in flux, but preparations are in place for the White House to issue a statement today demanding that Assad step down, the officials said. This would be accompanied by an announcement of new sanctions on the Assad regime and followed by an on-camera appearance by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reinforce the US position. With tension rising, the United Nations said it has temporarily withdrawn about two dozen "nonessential" international staff from Syria because of security concerns.