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Thousands demonstrate in Syrian cities
Witnesses say security forces fired tear gas at protesters marching towards central Damascus from the suburb of Douma.
Last Modified: 16 Apr 2011 03:59

Syrian security forces have dispersed thousands of protesters marching towards central Damascus from the suburb of Douma, witnesses say.

Haitham al-Maleh, an activist and lawyer, told Al Jazeera on Friday that protesters were close to Abasyeen Square when the intelligence services brought several buses carrying men with "pistols and sticks" who attacked protesters. He said those injured were taken away by medics.

Other sources said security forces used tear gas to disperse the crowds.

"I counted 15 mukhabarat [secret police] busloads. They went into the alleyways just north of the square chasing protesters and yelling 'You pimps, you infiltrators, you want freedom? We will give it to you!'," a witness told Reuters news agency.

Elsewhere in the capital, violence reportedly erupted when dozens of armed men in plainclothes surrounded about 250 protesters rallying in front of the Salam mosque in Barzeh district.

Thousands were also demonstrating in the southern city of Daraa. Al Jazeera's Rula Amin said security forces were not visible in the city, and that the protesters were being allowed to hold their demonstration.

"It's a completely different scene from last Friday when more than 26 people were killed during protests and clashes with the security forces and protesters here. People went out after Friday prayers ... in thousands. They were marching carrying olive branches saying 'Peaceful' [and] 'Freedom'. Some were demanding the toppling of the regime, others were saying they just want reforms," she reported from Daraa.

"It comes one day after a delegation from Daraa met with President Bashar al-Assad in an attempt by the government to calm the situation ... In Daraa, these measures seem to have calmed the situation a little bit. People say the president promised them very specific reforms that will be announced very soon, maybe as early as next week."

Peaceful protests

Protests were also held in Baniyas, Latakia, Baida and Homs, but no clashes were reported there.

In the coastal city of Baniyas about 1,500 people chanted "freedom" after Friday prayers, despite the deployment of the army to contain protests, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rallies were also reported in the city of Deir ez-Zor, on the Euphrates river, and in Qamishli in the mainly Kurdish northeast.

Some of the protesters are calling for reform and an end to corruption, while others are calling for a complete regime change.

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Haytham Manna, a Syrian and co-founder of the Arab Commission for Human Rights, said it is natural that protesters have different demands

"It's very difficult to have one voice after 48 years under emergency law", he told Al Jazeera from Paris.

"Most of them [the protesters] are in the streets for the first time in their life. They have to discuss, to speak together, because they didn't have this right before. Now they're together for freedom."

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, urged Syria to halt its deadly crackdown on protesters and respond to the democratic hopes of its people.

"We call on the Syrian authorities once again to refrain from any further violence against their own people," she told reporters in Berlin after a NATO meeting.

"The Syrian government has not addressed the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations."

Rights groups say at least 120 people have been killed since protests began last month.

On Thursday, the Syrian government announced an amnesty for scores of prisoners detained since protests began. Assad has also unveiled a new cabinet, in a move to placate those calling for political changes.

Emergency law 'to be lifted'

One of the key demands of the protesters has been the lifting of emergency law in the country, which has been in place since 1963.

Al Jazeera's Amin reported that the delegation from Daraa which met Assad was satisfied with his promises that the law would be lifted in the coming weeks.

"According to the delegation that met with the president, he told them that [the emergency law] will be lifted.  They said it is going to be lifted by April 25, the deadline that the government had announced, and they are happy with that," she said.

"They feel this is one of the major issues and the source of many of the problems. They are tired and have had enough of the security forces having a free hand in arresting people, putting them in prison without trial for years."

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Syrian security forces have been torturing political prisoners since March. The group is calling on the government to begin an independent investigation into the arrest and alleged abuse of hundreds of protesters.

The group said it had interviewed 19 people who had been detained in Daraa, Damascus, Douma, al-Tal, Homs, and Baniyas.

"What we've found is a very disturbing and scary pattern of ill-treatment and torture of people who were arrested at the protests," Nadim Houry, HRW's senior Syria researcher, told Al Jazeera. 

"During their detention, all of them except two, had been beaten or tortured, some with a cattle prod or electrical shocks, and many heard screams at night of others being beaten up."

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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