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Middle East
Outrage follows Syria security crackdown
Bloodshed in cities across the country prompts protesters to redouble calls for end to president Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Last Modified: 23 Apr 2011 16:44
People have taken to the streets in cities across Syria [Reuters]

Weeping over his Quran, the imam of the al-Rahman mosque in Hajjar al-Aswad, a poor neighbourhood near the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus, the Syrian capital, led evening prayers for the dead.

Six young men from the neighbourhood had been shot and killed by Syrian security forces, one of them Imam Abu Bilal's 22-year-old son.

His eyes black with rage, the imam vowed to bring thousand of supporters on to the streets to rally against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the president, when, like up to 100 other Syrian families on Saturday, he buries his dead.

"It started with 200 to 300 young men demonstrating in front of the police station," said Omar, a shopkeeper from the neighbourhood.

"Then the mosque told us the names of six people killed and within half an hour all the residents of Hajjar al-Aswad were on the street.

"All the young men, all the women, all the teenagers. We are a tribal society here."

 

The largest day of protests in a five-week uprising against the Syrian regime was also the most widespread, with the blood of citizens killed by plain clothes security and military spilled on the streets of the capital for the first time.

Capping a week that saw the central industrial city of Homs become a new focus for protest, what had begun as an uprising by citizens in the north, south and west of the country became on this "Great Friday" a battle for the streets in and around Damascus itself.

"I can tell you now, the situation in Maadamiya will never be calm," said a doctor from the southern suburb of the capital.

"Today is an historical day for the country. There is now a new strategy to kill all protesters, not even to arrest them."

Fearing to take the wounded to hospital after hearing from colleagues in neighbouring Darayya that security had shot and arrested protesters there, the doctor said he was now treating the injured inside people's homes.

"But it is very hard to treat the wounds because many have been shot in the head," he said.

'Arabs and Kurds are brothers'

As they had on previous Fridays, the protests began in the northeast, home to the majority of Syria's Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in the country.

Earlier this month, al-Assad tried to win support among this long-hostile demographic by restoring citizenship to up to 300,000 stateless Kurds.

But for at least one of the up to 8,000 mainly Kurdish demonstrators who took to the streets of Qamishli and Amouda chanting "Syrian people are one" and holding banners declaring "Arabs and Kurds are brothers", the concession meant little.

"A few weeks ago I was oppressed with no nationality," said Mohammed, one of the protesters in Qamishli.

"Now I'm oppressed with an ID card. We want freedom. This is not an issue of citizenship, but an issue of being a citizen."

Just further south, in the Kurdish-majority city of Hassake, Fadel Salim Faisal, a lawyer, attempted to exercise another new right as a citizen.

Hours after al-Assad signed a decree allowing peaceful protests, Faisal had gone to the governor of Hassake to apply for permission to protest.

Instead the lawyer was detained by air force security, roughed up and accused of "communicating with foreign services", according to fellow lawyer Louai Mustafa Osso.

Witnesses in Hassake reported seeing Baath Party officials joining with regime thugs to beat a group of about 500 protesters gathered beside the Grand Mosque following the end of Friday prayers.

Bullets 'like rain'

By the grim standards of "Great Friday", though, the Kurds got off lightly.

Similarly, for the tens of thousands shouting for the downfall of the regime on the streets of Baniyas and Latakia, port cities in the Allawite heartlands on the Mediterranean coast that are home to the al-Assad family, there was no repeat of the violent chaos, fuelled by loyalist fighters, which has left dozens dead.

This Friday, human rights activists named only two protesters killed in Latakia.

In the dusty southern border towns, on the edge of the desert that runs into Jordan, however, the bullets, according to one witness, fell "like heavy rain".

At least 20 people were killed in Izraa, a small town 25km north-east of Daraa, where the uprising began in mid March,  when the army and secret police opened fire on about 3,000 protesters marching between the town's main squares.

The dead included a 70-year-old man and a 10-year-old boy named by local human rights activists as Iyad Nimr.

Footage on YouTube, apparently from Izraa, showed a man carrying the body of a young boy, his hair matted with blood from a gaping wound in his head.

In Daraa, where at least 80 protesters have been killed, an eyewitness reported the largest protests to date, estimating tens of thousands had turned out onto the streets, with only one reported fatality.

"People are chanting that they want to topple the regime and release prisoners of conscience," said the eyewitness, whose brother had been killed by security forces three weeks ago.

"We will never forget the blood of the martyrs. The regime used fear and then more fear. Now we want freedom from fear."

In Homs, pro-government gunmen tried their best to keep that fear barrier in place.

With more than 20 protesters killed in two days earlier this week, the army and plain clothes security had put the city under lock-down, ringing it with checkpoints and preventing access to the central Clock Square, scene of an attempted opposition sit-in.

An eyewitness described how a group of about 200 protesters, moving ahead of the main group of around 3,000 protesters, came under fire as they marched down Cairo Street, close to Clock Square.

As the protest broke into smaller groups under heavy and sustained fire, government snipers took to the rooftops to prevent the opposition regrouping. 

Many bodies of those killed could not be retrieved. Some of the injured from Homs and neighbouring villages were bundled into private cars which were shot at, according to two separate sources, even as they tried to ferry the dying to hospital.

Three such cars disappeared after approaching a checkpoint, according to Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a human rights organisation, who had been in contact with the drivers.

"The driver said one of the injured in his car had lost consciousness and there was blood everywhere and they were driving really fast," said Tarif.

"I think they have been kidnapped by security forces. We have documented cases of security kidnapping the injured and corpses of martyrs in many places in Syria."

In all, human rights activists documented the names of 22 people killed in Homs on Friday.

In the nearby central city of Hama, where an uprising in 1982 by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was brutally crushed by Hafez al-Assad, the former president, killing at least 10,000 Syrians, protesters held their largest anti-regime demonstration to date. Three were killed.

"This is not 1982 anymore," said an eyewitness. "We want dignity and freedom."

Bloodshed in the capital

It was the towns and suburbs around Damascus that saw the most killing, bringing bloodshed and chaos crashing in on the peace and quiet many in the capital had hoped would not be disturbed.

For a few hours in Douma, site of the largest demonstrations to reach the vicinity of the capital, security forces did nothing to stop the tens of thousands of protesters gathered around Municipality Square, renamed Freedom Square, shouting: "The people want the fall of the regime."

The Syrian city of Homs has been a hotbed of
anti-government protest [Reuters]

But when protesters began marching on the checkpoints surrounding the town, attempting to join forces with protesters in nearby Harasta, riot police and plain clothes security opened fire.

As the death toll rose, reports came in of residents forming a human shield around the private-run Hamdan Hospital to prevent security forces arresting the injured.

As evening fell, six bus loads of plain clothes security were driven into Douma to continue the killing.

In all, eight protesters died and at least 25 were injured.

"We do not trust this government and the credibility of all officials has been shaken," said one Douma protester.

"We want the whole constitution to be changed and Article 8 [which gives the Baath Party the right to rule state and society] removed."

Further northwest from the capital, in Zamalka, five protesters were killed in a large demonstration.

On the northeast flanks of Qassioun mountain, a resident of Berze told Al Jazeera details of what was the first reported death of a protester inside Damascus city itself.

About 1,000 protesters had gathered outside the Salam Mosque calling for the government to be toppled, said the witness.

They were met by Kalashnikovs and snipers on roof tops, killing six people.

In neighbouring Qaboun, at least four protesters were also killed after Friday prayers, while in Dariya, a suburb further to the northeast, demonstrators reportedly demolished a statue of Basel al-Assad, the president's late brother.

The five bus loads of secret police sent to control them opened fire and killed four people.

There were no reports of deaths in Midan, long a centre of revolutionary activity in Damascus. The neighbourhood is the traditional home of the conservative Sunni merchants whose support the regime has long sought to bolster.

Yet the message to worshippers from the imam of Midan Mosque was uncompromising: "Whoever does this killing, God will have his revenge upon."

Hundreds poured from the mosque onto the street calling for the downfall of the regime and tearing posters of the president as they marched on the local police station, according to one of the protesters.

That they were only met with tear gas and warning shots, that frightened but did not kill, might be an indicator of the sensitivity of the regime to turning this powerful community of Damascenes against them.

But from the account of one Midan protester, that sensitivity has come far too late.

"Our regime is the most brutal and scary in the Middle East. It has no values and can easily kill its own people," he said.

"Rather than firing bullets, they should open their eyes and their hearts to the Syrian people. Now all Syrian cities should rise up together."

Reporters in Syria also contributed to this report

Source:
Al Jazeera
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