Violent protest continues in Syria, spreads to university in capital

Fredrick Kunkle – Washington Post April 11, 2011

Syria’s military moved into the Mediterranean port of Baniyas early Monday, human rights workers and activists said, a day after at least 13 people, including four demonstrators and nine members of the state’s security forces, were killed in violent clashes there.

Other activists reported that the unrest in Syria had reached Damascus University, Syria’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, in the nation’s capital.

Opponents of the Assad family’s dynasty said Monday that their numbers appear to be increasing.

“We are like a snowball that’s getting bigger every day,” said Haitham al-Maleh, a longtime opposition lawyer in Damascus who was recently released from prison.

The nearly month-long wave of protests has claimed an estimated 170 lives so far and presented the fiercest challenge to President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Baath Party since his taking over upon the death of his father 11 years ago.

Thousands on both sides of the escalating conflict attended the funeral services on Monday for those who were killed Sunday, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. He also said his organization — and even activists in Syria — have had difficulty determining the death toll from Sunday’s violence.

Al-Maleh said four protesters died in Baniyas on Sunday, a figure also reported by the Associated Press.

Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported Monday that nine members of the armed forces, including two officers, had been killed near Baniyas in Sunday’s clash on the highway to Latakia.

The agency said that an additional 32 people, including four civilians, had been injured, including an ambulance driver and an undetermined number of EMTs when their vehicle came under fire.

The Syrian government has expelled many media organizations, and frequent outages of Internet and mobile phone service have hampered efforts by human rights workers and others to follow events inside the tightly regulated country. Those difficulties seemed even larger Monday, Houry said. “It’s been hard to get a clear picture,” Houry said.

The Syrian government has blamed the killings on “armed groups” that ambushed the military convoy outside the city, a seaport that human rights activists said had been cut off by security forces Sunday.

But videos smuggled out of the country and played on Facebook and al-Jazeera have shown scenes from Daraa and other cities that show torched cars, demonstrators burning images of Assad and snatching up tear gas canisters and throwing them back at security forces. Others depict graphic violence, including people spraying gunfire from car windows and a group of what appear to be security forces beating a man with clubs and dragging away a body.

The violence has fed on itself, as protests lead to deadly clashes that create new demonstrations and calls for revenge during victims’ funerals. Last weekend, activists called for continuous demonstrations every day that would climax this Friday, the Muslim prayer day.

The president has promised reforms, including revising the hated emergency decree in place since 1963, shaken up his government and repealed a measure banning citizenship to ethnic Kurds but has so far been unable to restore order.

“I see more violence,” said Lamis K. Andoni, a political commentator said in an appearance on al-Jazeera. She said that although Assad continues to have support among many people who fear that the country could descend into chaos, there are signs that that has begun to weaken, too.

Andoni said that Kurds have continued to mount independent anti-government protests despite the shift toward granting them citizenship.

Tammam al-Barazi, an exiled Syrian journalist who writes for Al-Watan Al-Araby, said the unrest has spread to the campus of Damascus University in Syria’s capital, where he said perhaps 1,500 students conducted a sit-in on Monday.

Barazi’s contacts in Syria told him that armed thugs — known as shabinhah in Arabic — had moved to surround the campus.

SANA, the state-run news agency, described a disturbance at the university on Sunday, saying that passersby had intervened to stop a person who had attacked women and tried to remove their headscarves.

“This is the first time something in Damascus is happening,” Barazi said.

Barazi said opponents of Assad’s rule are watching now to see whether the protest movement spreads into Damascus or Aleppo, the country’s third-largest city, as those areas are strongholds of the Alawite minority that rules Syria’s the mostly Sunni population.

“It’s still happening and it’s still spreading,” Barazi said.

The latest wave of anti-government demonstrations began after the arrest in March of a group of young Syrians in Daraa for writing anti-government graffiti.

Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.

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