Syria protests draw thousands as Assad faces more global pressure

June 24, 2011

Tens of thousands of protesters on Friday rushed into the streets across Syria to renew the call for the immediate end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, four days after his speech pledging reform and dialogue failed to satisfy government opponents.

Assad finds himself further isolated globally as he faces the boldest challenge against his family’s 40-year-rule more than three months after protests began. The European Union this week expanded sanctions — travel bans and asset freezes — against more people connected to the regime, and Turkey called on the Assad government to carry out promised reforms.

Activists said that 200,000 people demonstrated in Hama alone, where a 1982 massacre ordered by Assad’s father left about 17,000 people dead. The protests there were unhindered by security forces. But in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, where repression is fierce, and in the country’s second largest city, Aleppo, government forces responded to protests with violence, activists said.

Twenty people, including two young boys, were killed across the country, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, which track the Syrian protest movement. The reports could not be independently verified because of limited media access to Syria.

Videos posted online from various parts of Syria showed crowds of people calling for Assad’s ouster on what was being termed the Friday “fall of legitimacy.” In one, protesters waved pictures of the dead and carried signs denouncing Assad as the “killer of children.” Another video from the Syrian town of Homs showed protesters facing tear gas and live gunfire as someone yelled, “the security forces are firing bullets.” Another showed police picking up apparent bullet casings from the street. “They’re picking up the bullets they used to kill the people . . . This is the government of Assad. Do you see them?” the person filming said.

In the Damascus suburb of Kiswa, protesters left a mosque just after Friday prayers and began to chant against the regime but were immediately dispersed by gunfire, said a Syrian human rights activist in the area who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. He said at least five people were killed.

The Local Coordinating Committees said another five people were killed in Barzeh, a district of Damascus. One person was killed in Hama and another four in Homs, both in central Syria, activists said.

Overnight and into Friday, more than 1,500 Syrians fled into Turkey as the Syrian army moved closer to the border, witnesses said. On Thursday, it surrounded a village just 500 meters from the Turkish border.

The continued troop movement raised fears about possible clashes between the two nations. Turkey, once a steadfast ally, has grown more critical of the Syrian government since refugees started flowing into the country.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that he’d expressed his concerns to the Syrian foreign minister, according to the semi-official Turkish Anatolian News Agency.

“We monitored Mr. Assad’s speech very closely. There were positive elements indicating reforms,” he said. “It is of great importance, however, that concrete steps towards these reforms are taken.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Syrian troop movement “worrisome” and said it could force the Turks to take action to protect their borders.

Syrian state news reported that some 500 refugees had returned to Jisr al Shoghour, the scene of the most bloody violence in recent weeks, after Assad’s speech. It also said they’d retaken control of the town without violence despite activists’ claims that the northeast of Syria was under intense military repression.

Assad assumed power after his father’s death in 2000 and was initially seen as a young face of reform that could transform Syria from an autocratic nation to a modern state. But the reforms never materialized, and promised changes since the uprising began have largely been seen as symbolic and empty rhetoric, including the lifting of a decades-old emergency law.

Special correspondent Gul Tusyuz contributed to this report from Istanbul.

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