Friday, March 25, 2011

Thousands March to Protest Syria Killings

Thousands March to Protest Syria Killings
Published: Thursday, 24 March 2011. Full copy:
DAMASCUS, Syria — Thousands of people gathered in protest at funerals in the southern city of Dara’a on Thursday, despite a major crackdown by Syrian security forces that suggested that leaders here would not tolerate pro-democracy protests like those that have swept other Arab nations.

An assault on the central mosque there early Wednesday, and subsequent attacks by security forces, left an unknown number of deaths, some of which appeared to be documented in bloody videos posted on YouTube. An American official who would speak only on background about intelligence reporting said that “about 15 people” were killed by forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Reuters quoted an unnamed hospital official in the city as putting the death toll at 37. Various Web sites were collecting names of those believed to be killed.

No violence was reported in the huge gatherings around the funerals for the dead on Thursday.

Information has trickled out slowly and incompletely from Syria, one of the most closed and repressive nations in the Middle East, which is closely allied both to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. But as the death toll from the Dara’a crackdown rose, Mr. Assad faced growing pressure both internally, as the protests spread around the south, and from other nations.

After calling the protesters’ grievances “justified,” one of Mr. Assad’s top advisers, Bouthaina Shaaban, announced a series of reforms that have been demanded by the protesters, including possibly suspending the long state of emergency rule, reducing corruption, establishing political parties and opening up the media.

Her statements came after Britain, France, Germany and the United Nations all condemned the violence.

Andrew J. Tabler, who spent a decade living in Syria and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said six days of protests of this size were unknown in Syria since at least 1982. In February of that year, Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, killed at least 10,000 people in an assault on the city of Hama to definitively end an Islamist uprising.

"The regime is under serious pressure, and it’s hard to predict where this may lead," he said.

The protests are in a Sunni area and the turmoil threatens to “crack the Sunni veneer” of the government of Mr. Assad, who is of the Alawite religious minority, said Mr. Tabler. But he said the protests have not so far taken on a strong sectarian character and are mainly a response to years of broken promises and delays in carrying out political reforms.

The crackdown in Dara’a began early on Wednesday after the Syrian Army reinforced the police presence in the city, near the Jordanian border, and confronted a group of protesters who had gathered in and around the Omari mosque in the city center. Activists and news reports said five or six people were killed after the forces tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas and then live ammunition.

Among the dead was Ali al-Mahameed, a doctor, who witnesses said was shot while tending to the injured. At least one person was killed after Dr. Mahameed’s funeral on Wednesday afternoon, attended by thousands of people, some of whom tried to return to the city center. Syrian state television said Wednesday that it was not security forces who that had killed people at the mosque but rather an “armed gang.” The broadcast showed guns, grenades, ammunition and money that was said to have been taken from the mosque after a police raid. The report acknowledged four dead.

The official SANA news agency reported that the “gang” had killed a doctor, a medical worker and a driver in an ambulance and “security forces faced down those aggressors and managed to shoot and wound a few of them.”

Despite emergency laws that have banned public gatherings for nearly 50 years, protests have grown in the last week in several cities around Syria. The largest have been in Dara’a, with thousands taking to the streets on Friday and again on Sunday, when protesters burned government buildings and clashed with the police. Several people were reported to have died.

The mosque’s imam, Ahmed al-Sayasna, told the news channel Al Arabiya that there were no weapons in the mosque, which he said was under police control.

A video posted on YouTube showed the mosque with a voice coming from the loudspeakers addressing the police: “Who would kill his own people? You are our sons, you are our brother.” Armed security forces could be seen running at a distance, amid gun shots and cries for help.

“Streets are full of scores of wounded and many dead, and no one can go to their rescue,” a witness said.

Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home