Students rally in Syria's capital over deaths

Students gather outside capital's university to express solidarity with protesters killed campaigning for democracy.

    The army has been deployed in Baniyas following the violence over the weekend [AFP]

    Hundreds of students have rallied in Damascus, the Syrian capital, to express solidarity with pro-democracy protesters killed over the weekend.

    The rare demonstration on Monday at Damascus University reportedly turned violent when security forces beat up and arrested several protesters who were shouting for freedom and unity, witnesses told the Associated Press news agency.

    Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organisation for Human Rights, told the AP news agency that one student had died after he was shot in the demonstration.

    Video footage posted online showed what appeared to be plainclothes security forces beating protesters and forcefully pulling others away as they marched inside the campus.

    An activist in touch with students who witnessed the demonstration corroborated the footage, but spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

    "The Syrian people are one!'' the students shouted in the video.

    Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the head of the Syrian Human Rights League, said Fayez Sara, a well known Syrian writer and journalist, was detained at his home on Monday, while several other activists had been picked up in the past few days.

    'Meaningful reform'

    William Hague, Britain's foreign minister, said on Monday that "meaningful reform" was the only legitimate response to the demands from protesters.

    "We call upon the Syrian government to respect the right for free speech and peaceful protest," he said at a news conference in London.

    Syria's three-week uprising against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the president, has continued to gather strength despite a government crackdown.

    The activist who spoke to AP said most of the students taking part in Monday's protest in Damascus were from Daraa - the southern city that has become the epicentre of the violence - and the port city of Baniyas, where four protesters were killed on Sunday.

    About 2,000 mourners chanting "death is better than humiliation!'' turned out in Baniyas on Monday for the funeral of the four protesters after noon prayers, an eyewitness said.

    The army has been deployed in the city and a resident told Al Jazeera that the area was calm but tense.

    'Armed group'

    A witness to Sunday's violence in Baniyas said "that armed gangs were shooting at army and residents at the same time. Residents alleged the gunmen were loyalists of the regime," Al Jazeera's correspondent in Syria said.

    "A statement was issued on behalf of the people of the city, the veracity of which has yet to be confirmed, desperately asking for help, from the army and from human rights groups, from anyone."

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    State television first confirmed the death of one security official, but later revised it to nine, while AP, quoting witnesses, reported the deaths of four civilians.

    People said that most of the army forces were killed by the military security forces as they refused to shoot the population, Al Jazeera's correspondent said.

    The reports have yet to be verified.

    Members of the group that came under attack were armed with sticks and guarding the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque when they were confronted by Assad loyalists, the Reuters news agency said.

    The official SANA news agency, quoting a government source, reported that an "armed group" ambushed an army patrol in Baniyas.

    Details were sketchy because telephone lines, internet access and electricity were apparently cut to most parts of the city.

    One witness said dozens of people were wounded, but most of them asked to be treated at a small clinic instead of the main hospital, which was under the control of the security forces.

    Anti-regime slogans

    Sunday's clashes came as days of protests and violence in Daraa, the southern flashpoint city, forced many schools and government offices to close.

    More than 120 people have been killed in the recent protests, according to human rights groups.

    A key demand of protesters is an end to a decades-old emergency law that gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.

    But Assad has stopped well short of the protesters' demands, promising instead to form committees to look into reforms.

    The UN and many Western countries have condemned Syria's use of violence.

    Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has told Assad he is "greatly disturbed" by the reports of violence.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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