Protesters shot as demonstrations expand across Syria

March 25, 2011

Syrian security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas rounds at protesters Friday, killing an undetermined number of people, as unrest that had been mostly contained in a small southwestern city erupted across the country, including the capital, Damascus.

Activists rejected a government promise Thursday to consider political reforms, calling it inadequate. They said significant changes, including the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency law, must be implemented immediately or their goals could expand to include President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster.

“They are ignoring all of our demands. They’re trying to bribe the Syrian people,” said Maltham Aumran, a Syrian cyber-activist who uses a pseudonym. “The people are not courageous enough yet” to demand regime change, he said. But he added, “It will come.”

In a country with one of the most repressive governments in the Arab world, the spreading protests appeared to break a long-standing taboo on dissent. The outcome matters not just for Syria — a majority-Sunni country of 22 million people — but for the region: The Damascus government wields enormous sway in neighboring Lebanon, has a decades-long history of conflict with Israel and is Shiite Iran’s most important Arab ally.

Anti-government demonstrations flared elsewhere in the Middle East on Friday. In Bahrain, security forces fired tear gas and pellets at thousands of people defying a ban on public gatherings, leading to the death of one protester, activists said. In Jordan, at least 120 people were injured as protesters demanding reforms clashed with government supporters and security forces in the capital, Amman. And in Yemen, protesters again took to the streets to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster as other crowds rallied in support of the status quo.

In Syria, the call for nationwide demonstrations went out Thursday after it became clear that dozens of people had been killed the day before in a raid by security forces in the southwestern city of Daraa, the center of Syria’s burgeoning unrest.

Tens of thousands responded, in Daraa, Damascus and the cities of Homs, Latakia, Hama and Sanamein, according to witnesses and news service reports. Many demonstrators were seen on video footage calling for freedom and peace and chanting, “With our soul, with our blood, we’ll sacrifice for you, Daraa.”

The protests were met with beatings, detentions and, in some cases, live ammunition, witness and video reports indicated. But with journalists’ access to Syria restricted and most people afraid to speak on phones tapped by security services, it was unclear how many people were killed Friday. Human Rights Watch said it had no reliable figure, despite news agency reports citing witness accounts of at least 20 people being killed in just one town, Sanamein.

In Daraa, according to a witness reached by phone, security forces fired live ammunition and tear-gas rounds at crowds in the city center after protesters tried to destroy a statue of the Assad’s late father, President Hafez al-Assad, and tear down a portrait of the son.

“We met the intensive fire with our chests, without throwing any stones,” said the witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

The injured were taken to a local hospital and nearby mosques, he said.

The protester said the crowds in the city included many who had streamed in from neighboring villages and towns. They called for Assad’s ouster, a demand that has been rare, even in the protests on Friday. They also denounced the president’s brother and head of the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad, who has been blamed for authorizing security forces to attack protesters.

A video from Homs shows a protester tearing apart a billboard portrait of Hafez al-Assad, a public act likely without precedent in Syria. A YouTube video reportedly filmed in Sanamein, near Daraa, shows bullets being emptied into crowds of fleeing protesters and at least four men, unconscious or dead, being carried away bleeding.

A video from Daraa includes footage of people weeping over bodies and a woman chanting, “Down! Down! Down Bashar al-Assad,” her voice twisted with grief.

In the capital, which until Friday had been largely isolated from the unrest, protests broke out in several areas but were mostly dispersed quickly by security forces, who beat some of the demonstrators and detained dozens of others, said two activists reached by phone and Skype who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In the suburb of Duma, electricity was cut off at a protesters’ encampment and security forces beat the occupants with sticks and cables late Friday night, the activists said.

Also Friday, pro-government demonstrators took to the streets in Damascus, waving Assad’s picture and chanting slogans of support.

Reem Haddad, an Information Ministry spokeswoman, told al-Jazeera English on Friday that security forces were told “not to shoot.” She added that some of the protests included groups of armed people and that security forces were forced to retaliate. The government has also accused protesters of being supported by Israel and described them as violent Muslim extremists.

Protesters and activists deny that they were armed.

In a briefing Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney condemned what he described as “attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Assad in a telephone call to exercise “maximum restraint,” the Reuters news service reported.

Many people in Syria see the 45-year-old, Western-educated Assad as a youthful leader capable of bringing about a more free and open society, despite being the unelected head of an unapologetically autocratic government. But the violent reaction to Friday’s protests may change that, some analysts said, emboldening the opposition rather than quelling it. Brutal reactions by security forces in Tunisia and Egypt brought more people into the streets to voice their anger, they noted, ultimately ending the rule of their autocratic leaders.

“There are two dynamics competing: the dynamic of violent repression of protests, which leads to more protests,” said Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher responsible for Syria and Lebanon. “The other possibility is the authorities manage to convince people that the package of reforms is serious. . . . The window of opportunity for reforms is narrowing as violence against protesters continues.”

Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.

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