Protests spread against Assad rule in Syria

by Reuters
Friday, 25 March 2011 22:31 GMT

Reuters

Image Caption and Rights Information

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS, March 25 (Reuters) - Protests spread across Syria on Friday, challenging the 40-year rule of the Assad family after their forces killed dozens of demonstrators in the south.

There was more bloodshed after weekly prayers, with reports of at least 23 dead, including for the first time in the capital Damascus. Information on casualties was limited and President Bashar al-Assad&${esc.hash}39;s authorities restricted journalists&${esc.hash}39; movements.

In Deraa, tens of thousands marched in funerals for some of the dead, chanting "Freedom". In a central square, a Reuters correspondent saw protesters haul down a statue of Assad&${esc.hash}39;s father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before security men in plain clothes opened fire with automatic rifles from buildings.

The crowd of some 3,000 scattered under volleys of bullets and tear gas. The reporter saw some wounded helped into cars and ambulances. It was unclear how many, if any, were killed.

By evening, however, security forces appeared to have melted away, a crowd of protesters gathered again in the main square and set a government building on fire, witnesses said.

"The barrier of fear is broken. This is a first step on the road to toppling the regime," said Ibrahim, a middle-aged lawyer in Deraa who compared events to the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab states. "We have reached the point of no return."

After pulling down the statue, in a scene that recalled the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 by U.S. troops, some protesters poured fuel into the broken cast and set it alight.

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More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE71O2CH]

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TWENTY KILLED

In the town of Sanamein, which is in the same southern area of the country as Deraa, local residents said 20 people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a crowd outside a building used by military intelligence -- part of an extensive security apparatus that has protected Baath party rule since 1963.

Syria&${esc.hash}39;s national news agency said security forces had killed armed attackers who tried to storm the building in Sanamein.

Deraa is a bastion of tribes belonging to Syria&${esc.hash}39;s Sunni Muslim majority who resent the power and wealth amassed by an elite from the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong.

Amnesty International put the death toll around the town in the past week at 55 at least, though local people had spoken of twice that number even before Friday. Hospital officials said on Thursday that at least 37 were killed when security forces destroyed a pro-democracy protest camp at a mosque on Wednesday.

In Hama, in the centre of the country, where the elder Assad put down an Islamist revolt in 1982 at a cost of many thousands of lives, residents said people streamed through the streets after weekly prayers chanting "Freedom is ringing out!" -- a slogan heard in uprisings sweeping the rest of the Arab world.

The United States, France and Britain urged Assad to refrain from violence. A week ago they launched a U.N.-backed air campaign to protect opponents of Libya&${esc.hash}39;s Muammar Gaddafi.

But analysts see little chance that heavily armed Syria, which is wrapped in an anti-Western, anti-Israel alliance with Iran and sits within a web of conflicts across the region, may face the sort of foreign intervention seen in North Africa.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Assad to urge "maximum restraint" by a government which has long been accused of taking extreme measures to suppress dissent.

U.S. President Barack Obama&${esc.hash}39;s spokesman said: "We strongly condemn the Syrian government&${esc.hash}39;s attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators."

A spokeswoman for Assad&${esc.hash}39;s information ministry denied that accusation and said some protesters had been carrying weapons.

The International Crisis Group think-tank said the 45-year-old, British-educated Assad could call on reserves of goodwill among the population to steer away from confrontation and introduce political and economic reforms.

"Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership," the think-tank wrote on Friday. "There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change.

"The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."

ASSAD SUPPORTERS

Thousands of Assad&${esc.hash}39;s supporters waved flags, marched and drove in cars around Damascus and other cities to proclaim their allegiance to the Baath party and to Assad, whose father took power in a coup in 1970.

In Deraa, young men announced their rejection of the rulers by replacing the word "Bashar" with the word "Freedom" in a traditional loyalty slogan -- "God, Syria and Freedom Only!" the

Security men, on alert across the country during weekly prayers at mosques, quickly stifled a small demonstration in the capital Damascus. They hauled away dozens among a crowd of some 200 who chanted their support for people of Deraa.

Later, residents of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamieh said three people were killed when a crowd confronted a procession of cars driven by Assad supporters. In Tel, near Damascus, about 1,000 people rallied and chanted slogans, residents said.

Unrest in Deraa came to a head this week after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for writing graffiti inspired by slogans used by pro-democracy demonstrators abroad.

Among the targets of popular anger on Friday were Maher al-Assad, a brother of the president and head of the Republican Guard, a special security force, and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin who runs big businesses and is accused by Washington of corruption.

Assad&${esc.hash}39;s anti-Israel stance has protected him against some of the criticism aimed, for example, at Egypt&${esc.hash}39;s deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, who promoted peace with the Jewish state.

Demonstrators in Deraa turned that hostility to Israel against the government on Friday, highlighting the use of force against Syrian civilians and the failure of the Assads to take back the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.

"Maher, you coward!" they chanted. "Send your troops to liberate the Golan!"

Assad had promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.

He also pledged to look at ending an emergency law in place since 1963 and made an offer of large public pay rises.

But demonstrators said they did not believe the promises.

On Jan. 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria. (Additional reporting by a Reuters correspondent in Deraa and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Jon Boyle)

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