Nineteen people reported killed in shelling of Homs and al-Harah despite calls from UN for end to crackdown on protests.
Zeina Khodr reports on a less bloody Friday in Syria
Up to six people are reported to have been killed in protests across Syria despite an order from the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to security forces not to fire on protesters.
A leading human rights activist said on Friday three people were killed in Homs, two in Damascus and one in a village outside Deraa, the southern city where the revolt began two months ago. He asked that his name not be used for fear of government reprisal.
“At first they opened fire in the air, but the people continued on their way, and then they shot directly into the crowd,” an eyewitness told the Associated Press news agency by telephone from Homs.
Another rights campaigner said security police fired at a night demonstration in the eastern town of Mayadeen, injuring four people.
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The first rallies on Friday erupted in the country’s mainly Kurdish northeast, where protesters demanded an end to military actions that activists say have killed hundreds of protesters.
Demonstrators chanting “Syria for all its sons”, “Long live independent, free Syria”, and “The Syrian people are one”, rallied after noon prayers in towns including Qamishli, Amouda, Ras al-Ain and Derbassieh.
Video posted online also showed protesters in some areas chanting: “We don’t like you!” and “Bye bye, Bashar”.
Organisers estimated 3,500 people, mainly Kurds, protested in Amouda and up to 4,000 marched in Qamishli, including Arabs and members of Syria’s Christian Assyrian sect.
“The Kurds are now expanding their participation in demonstrations calling for freedom in the country, along with other fellow Syrians. The army’s intervention is condemned,” Ismail Hami, secretary-general of the Kurdish Yakiti Party, told Al Jazeera.
Soldiers occupied mosques and blocked off major public areas to head off protests, but demonstrations erupted anyway in several major areas – including cities where the government’s response has been particularly severe, such as Homs and Hama.
The rallies also spread to new areas of the capital, suggesting opposition to the 40-year Assad dynasty remains unbowed despite one of the most violent crackdowns of the Arab Spring.
Still, the turnout appeared to be lower than in previous weeks – something that protesters attributed to the widespread deployment of soldiers and security forces who prevented people from leaving their homes, even to attend Friday prayers.
“The army has transformed major mosques in the city into military barracks where soldiers sleep, eat and drink,” said a resident in the coastal town of Baniyas, where some of the biggest protests have erupted in recent weeks.
“They’ve put up barriers and sandbags around the mosques,” he said.
Three rallies were held on Friday in Damascus – the largest number of protests held at one time there. The Damascus protests are significant because they hit the seat of Assad’s power.
“The army has transformed major mosques in the city into military barracks where soldiers sleep, eat and drink”
A resident in the coastal town of Baniyas
Security forces fired tear gas in the capital’s Zahra neighbourhood, forcing scores of people to disperse. In nearby Mazzeh, protesters ran away when security forces arrived. And in Muhajereen, security forces used batons to scatter dozens of people, activists said.
In Damascus’ Qaboun neighbourhood, a witness said worshippers who came out of the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque clashed with about 50 pro-Assad demonstrators who were being covered by a Syrian TV station.
“There are three new neighbourhoods in Damascus that witnessed protests for the first time,” said leading human rights activist Mazen Darwish.
‘Comprehensive national dialogue’
Louay Hussein, a Syrian writer and political activist, said it was “an important political milestone when protests start happening in Damascus neighbourhoods as opposed to the suburbs”.
Adnan Mahmoud, information minister, told reporters on Friday that a “comprehensive national dialogue in all provinces” will start within days, but he gave no further details.
Mahmoud said army units had started to leave the coastal city of Baniyas and completed a pullout from Deraa, although residents there reported tanks outside mosques in the morning.
Aref Dalila, an economist who met Shaaban last week, said “the domination of the security apparatus over life in Syria” must end for different opinions to be represented.
“We are long used to these ‘dialogues’ in Syria, where the regime assembles its loyalists in a conference and the other opinion is either in jail or underground,” he said.
Rising death toll
Up to 850 Syrians may have been killed in a two-month military crackdown and thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, the United Nations human rights office said on Friday.
“We again call on the government to exercise restraint, to cease use of force and mass arrests to silence opponents,” Rupert Colville, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a news briefing.
The toll of 700 to 850 dead, based on information provided by human rights activists, was “quite likely to be genuine”, he said, adding it had lists of names of alleged victims.
Assad’s regime has blamed the unrest on terrorist, extremist groups and foreign agitators. He has come under scathing criticism for the crackdown, with the United States and Europe imposing economic sanctions on senior Syrian officials, but not on Assad himself.
On Friday, the US expressed its “outrage” over the violent crackdown in Syria, US State department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“We continue to look at ways to apply pressure on the Syrian regime,” he told reporters.
Also on Friday, three US senators urged Barack Obama, the US president, to expand sanctions against top Syrian officials and to call for Assad to stand down.
Britain summoned the Syrian ambassador to London on Friday, warning that unless Damascus “stopped the killing of protesters and released political prisoners… [the EU] would take further measures to hold the regime to account”.
The government’s bloody crackdown has increased in intensity in recent days and weeks. The army shelled residential areas in central and southern Syria on Wednesday, killing 19 people, a human rights group said.
A UN international aid assessment team has not been allowed to enter Deraa, besieged for weeks, to check on the situation.
There is a media blackout in Syria, making it impossible to confirm witness accounts independently. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their personal safety.