Syria unleashes force on protesters demanding freedom as unrest spreads

Katherine Marsh, Tom Finn and Martin Chulov – Guardian.co.uk March 25, 2011 

(Warning: graphic footage of the dead after 5.00 minutes)

Demonstrations in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and elsewhere were met with force as security forces struggled to contain unrest that had begun in the southern city of Deraa a week ago.

Thousands once again joined funeral processions in Deraa on Friday, chanting: “Deraa people are hungry, we want freedom.”

Hundreds took to the streets in the cities of Homs, Hama, Tel and Latakia and in towns surrounding Deraa, with smaller protests in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which are more firmly under the watch of security forces. Troops reportedly opened fire in some cases.

Protests in the capital are rare and not tolerated by the Ba’athist regime. A witness told the Guardian that efforts at protests in Damascus were broken up by plain-clothed agents using batons.

By nightfall, a counter-demonstration had been mounted near the historic Umayyad mosque in the heart of the capital. Brief clashes were reported between anti-regime demonstrators and loyalists. A large rally then began in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds drove around the capital beeping horns and waving flags, whilst posters of the president were put up in the city.

The violence in Syria came after the government had pledged on Thursday to look into reforms. But activists using the Syrian Revolution Facebook page had called for a day of solidarity with Deraa, where according to unofficial reports at least 44 have been killed in the past week.

In the past, many young Syrians had been willing to overlook corruption, a lack of freedom and the slow pace of reforms in return for what they have seen as dignified leadership brought about by Assad’s anti-Western foreign policy. He has also had a youthful appeal. Both appear to now be wearing thin.

“Regimes become really weak when their image turns to brutality. The killings in Deraa have done that,” said Ziad Malki, an activist living in exile in Switzerland. “The Syrian people want more now.”

Others agreed that a turning point had been reached. “Syrians [normally] never come out to protests. This shows how the killings, the worthless reforms announced yesterday and the government propaganda is insulting and is only making us angrier,” said a 32-year-old man.

The protests and revolts across the Arab world continued elsewhere in Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen.

In Amman, one person was killed and more than 100 wounded when pro-government loyalists attacked a weekly pro-reform vigil in the heart of the Jordanian capital. The clashes were broken up by riot police.

The violence was the first of its kind in Jordan in more than two months of protests which have seen the king sack his cabinet and pledge reforms.

Islamic Action Front leader Hamza Mansour, whose party leads Jordan’s nascent opposition, said one of its members, Khairi Jamil Saeed, 26, was killed by being beaten by police.

“This is an atrocious crime and we blame it on prime minister Marouf al-Bakhit and his cabinet,” Mansour told the Associated Press. “The prime minister and the cabinet must resign.”

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said that he was willing to relinquish power but not unconditionally.

“We are prepared to give up power but only to good, capable hands, not to malicious forces who conspire against the homeland,” said Saleh after calling on young people leading protests against him to establish a political party and deliver a roadmap for Yemen’s future.

Striking a defiant pose, Saleh attacked those he claims are “conspiring against him”, calling them Houthis – an armed clan demanding autonomy in north Yemen – and drug dealers.

A few miles away, anti-government protesters staged their biggest pro-democracy rally since unrest broke out five months ago, in what they called the Friday of Departure.

Tens of thousands knelt in neat rows for a mass prayer ceremony as a weeping imam demanded: “Why do you kill us Ali? Why?”

A week ago, 53 protesters were killed at the spot by plain-clothed government loyalists firing from the roofs of nearby houses.

In the Bahrain capital, Manama, riot police fired teargas at demonstrators who defied a ban on public gatherings and staged a rally in the Shia suburb of Duraz. At least 20 people have been killed in a two-month uprising led by a disaffected Shia majority against the Gulf island’s Sunni rulers.

Source

Katherine Marsh is a pseudonym for a journalist living in Damascus 

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